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Archaeologists find largest-ever Mayan complex hiding in plain sight

Researchers discover a massive ceremonial structure of the ancient Mayans using lasers.

3D image of the site of Aguada Fenix.

Credit: Takeshi Inomata
  • Archaeologists used laser-based aerial surveys to discover the oldest and largest Mayan structure ever found.
  • The 3,000-year-old complex in the Mexican state of Tabasco was likely used as a ceremonial center.
  • Researchers believe the site represents a communal society rather than one based on worshipping elites.

The southern tip of Mexico is hiding a giant Mayan structure from about 3,000 years ago, new research shows. The nearly one mile-long monument may be the oldest and largest ever found from the mysterious civilization. An accomplishment of this magnitude is making scientists rethink what they know about the knowledge of the ancient Mayans.

The site, known as Aguada Fénix, was discovered in the state of Tabasco, near the Gulf of Mexico. The complex, likely used as a ceremonial center and a place of gathering, was essentially hiding under the feet of modern-day Mexicans who live above the massive structure. It's 4,600 feet (1,400 meters) long and likely dates to between 1000 and 800 BCE. That time period, specifically, the year 950 BCE, also produced another Mayan site, known as Ceibal, which was previously considered the oldest-ever ceremonial center.

While potentially being even older, Aguada Fénix is also much larger and incomparable to anything else from that time, concluded the archaeologists led by University of Arizona professors Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan.

"To our knowledge, this is the oldest monumental construction ever found in the Maya area and the largest in the entire pre-Hispanic history of the region," the researchers wrote in their study.

The research uncovered the secret of Aguada Fénix, which looks like a natural landscape above, via aerial surveys using the remote sensing method LIDAR. The analysis, which had laser beams sent from planes through the thick canopy of trees, showed an elevated platform that's almost a mile (1,413 meters) north to south, a quarter-mile (399 meters) east to west, and as much as 33 to 50 feet (15 meters) high. The platform also has nine wide causeways leading away from it, as well as small structures and artificial reservoirs around it.

"Artificial plateaus may be characterised as horizontal monumentality, which contrasts with the vertical dimensions of pyramids," explained the archaeologists. They connect the look of Aguada Fénix with what is known as the Middle Formative Usumacinta (MFU) pattern, distinct for its rectangular shape and rows of low mounds.

Another interesting find relates to the lack of statues shaped like humans in the ancient settlement. The scientists think this points to the fact that the society that lived there had no "clear indicators of marked social inequality, such as sculptures representing high-status individuals." In fact, the only stone sculpture they discovered in the area was of an animal.

This type of social organization, which was possibly less hierarchical and more communal, would be in great difference to other ancient people who inhabited the region like the Olmec from the nearby state of Veracruz. Their culture is known to have produced colossal stone heads.

"This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups," Inomata shared, adding "You may not necessarily need a well-organised government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results."

Check out the new paper "Monumental architecture at Aguada Fénix and the rise of Maya civilization" published in Nature.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by climate change, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.
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Creativity: The science behind the madness

Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.

Creativity: The science behind the madness | Rainn Wilson, David Eagleman, Scott ...
Videos
  • An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
  • According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
  • Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.

New study explores how to navigate 'desire discrepancies' in long term relationships

With the most common form of female sexual dysfunction impacting 1 in 10 women, this important study dives into how to keep a relationship going despite having different needs and wants in the bedroom.

NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock
Sex & Relationships
  • A new study highlights the difficulties faced by women who struggle with decreased sexual desire, and explains how to navigate desire discrepancies in long-term relationships.
  • Hypoactive sexual desire disorder is one of the most common forms of female sexual dysfunction, impacting an estimated 1 in 10 women.
  • Finding other ways to promote intimacy in your relationship is one of the keys to ensuring happiness on both sides.
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