|24 May 2010
Zoque pyramid burial - the oldest in Mexico?
A team of archaeologists lead by Bruce Bachand of Brigham Young University have excavated what may be the oldest pyramid burial in Mesoamerica at Chiapa de Corzo, southern Mexico. According to archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga, the tomb dates between 700 and 500 BCE, and may be "One of the earliest discoveries of the use of a pyramid as a tomb, not only as a religious site or a temple."
Their investigation began in April as a study of the internal structure of the three-story pyramid, which were often built in layers over earlier constructions. While excavating, they noticed finished stones facing inwards, and soon after uncovered a 4m by 3m tomb some 6-7m below the top of the pyramid. In the tomb, they found the body of a man aged around 50, dressed in a pearl-beaded loincloth, and a female of similar age, whose bodies were covered with sacred red pigment. The male wore a funeral mask with obsidian eyes, and they were buried with jade and amber collars, jade beads in the shape of howler monkeys, crocodiles and gourds, and other ornaments. Around the bodies there were offerings including ceramics, ritual axes, iron pyrite mirrors and a red-painted stucco mask. Some of the objects were imported from as far away as Guatemala and central Mexico, while some of the ceramics show Olmec influence. Bachand stated that "these people were at the top of society, there is no doubt about it."
Accompanying these burials were two other bodies, apparently human sacrifices. The body of a one-year-old child was placed carefully over the body of the male, while that of a 20-year-old male was perhaps thrown in, resulting in its awkward posture against the wall of the tomb, with one arm awkwardly positioned over the head.
The burial in the Zoque culture area also aroused some speculation as to how it fits into the wider pattern of cultural influences in Mesoamerica. Bachand suggests that the tomb offers insight into the emergence of of unique cultures from the Olmec culture, long regarded as the regional 'mother culture', since it displays both Olmec and Zoque features, and Maya scholar Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois also sees a relation with the Olmec. While no Olmec pyramids have been excavated owing partly to difficult local environmental conditions, they may also have contained elite burials. Lynneth Lowe of Mexico's National Autonomous University suggested "It is possible that this type of tomb existed at La Venta."
Chiapas is also home to a more famous Maya pyramid burial, that of the ruler Pakal at Palenque, some 1,000 later than the new discovery at Chiapa de Corzo. However, despite the location, the connection, if any, between the Olmec and Maya and Zoque and Maya remains unclear.
Nevertheless, Bachand notes that the pyramid with its long terraced platform appears similar to the Maya E group arrangement, which had astrological significance and aligned with solstitial and equinoctial sunrises. "This isn't just any old pyramid. It appears to be one of the earliest E groups in all of Mesoamerica." He suggests it may well be that Zoque culture was an influence on the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures.
Sources: National Geographic News, Guardian.co.uk (18 May 2010), The Times of Malta (19 May 2010)
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