By Roger Croteau
Findings by a Texas State University-San Marcos professor at an archaeological site in Belize have pushed back the date for the rise of the Maya civilization to 300 years earlier than previously believed.
Anthropology professor James J. Garber has worked at the site, known as Blackman Eddy, each summer since 1990. Although smaller than many other Maya ruins, it was a major cultural center in the Upper Belize Valley.
“ I would say it’s a very important finding,” said Sandra Noble, executive director of the Florida-based Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “People in this field will take notice. We are realizing what we thought we knew is just scratching the surface.”
The site was discovered by chance in the 1980s, when a bulldozer doing road work in the area hit a pyramid, destroying half of it.
It was a stroke of luck for Garber. Central American governments prohibit archaeologists from destroying pyramids’ outer structures, so they are limited to trenching, coring and tunneling to see what’s inside.
Because the Blackman Eddy pyramid was badly damaged and in danger of collapse, Belize authorities allowed Garber and his team of students from what was then Southwest Texas State University to excavate it to bedrock.
“ It was an unfortunate incident, but from that we were able to acquire quite a bit of information,” Garber said.
It was believed that the indigenous groups living in Central America before 800 B.C. were hunter-gatherers.
But Garber found that they had a much more complex society, with sophisticated agriculture, long-distance trade routes, and an established religious and political center.
The Maya erected new pyramids on top of older ones, concealing previous building phases. Garber and his students took the Blackman Eddy pyramid apart layer by layer, discovering 13 building phases over 2,000 years.
Maya civilization reached its peak around A.D. 600.
“ As we dug through the layers of the pyramid, we hit 800 B.C. and kept on going down to about 1100 B.C., where we were finding settled agricultural peoples making sophisticated pottery. So we’ve pushed the dates for the Maya about 300 years,” Garber said.
“ It is a unique finding, but my guess is that if archaeologists had the opportunity to dismantle pyramids in other places, they would find the same thing,” he added.
The high quality of the early ceramics indicates that a sophisticated society existed at 1100 B.C., he said. Exotic goods, greenstone, obsidian and marine shells also were found, showing long-distance trade was well established by that time.
“ It is also interesting that the earliest inhabitants at Blackman Eddy don’t seem to be Maya,” Garber said.
“ From the artifacts we’ve found, they look similar to groups from coastal Honduras and highland Guatemala that we know were not Maya speakers,” he said. “These groups possibly influenced the Maya or made it possible for them to create their civilization before they were absorbed or replaced by Maya groups.”
Noble said the Maya established the concept of zero and made other major advances in mathematics, astronomy, art and politics.
“ Our schools are still very Eurocentric,” Noble said. “People do not appreciate the significance of the Maya civilization. Instead of looking to Egypt, Greece and Rome, we can look to the extremely high ancient civilization in our own back yard.”
Garber’s findings are to be published by University Press in November. The book, “The Ancient Maya of the Belize Valley: Half a Century of Archaeological Research,” is expected to make a splash among archaeologists, Noble said.
“ This is a big deal,” she said.
Garber plans to return to Belize this month on a less pleasant trip, a court hearing in which he will try to have a manslaughter charge dismissed.
In July, on a return trip from the dig site, he was driving a van full of students that lost its brakes on a steep hill approaching the San Ignacio town plaza.
He attempted to slow the vehicle by rubbing its tires against a curb, but the van jumped the curb, hitting and killing a pedestrian.