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BYU archaeologists discover ancient royal tomb in Mexico that may be oldest in Americas

Published: Thursday, June 3 2010 12:45 a.m. MDT

Archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga works on the skeletal remains of a woman found inside a tomb in the ancient city of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico. Archaeologists believe this is one of the oldest pyramid tombs in Mesoamerica, dating back nearly 2,700 years.

Bruce Bachand

PROVO — Whoever they were, the two adults went out of this life in style — their bodies adorned with jade carvings shaped like monkeys and crocodiles, and their mouths filled with precious jewels and tiny seashells.

Archaeologists who recently discovered the final resting place of what may have been a royal couple in the ancient city of Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico, believe this is one of the oldest pyramid tombs in Mesoamerica, dating back nearly 2,700 years.

"It was a mixture of emotions," BYU archaeologist and project director Bruce Bachand said of the find. "Astonishment at the remarkable nature of the remains, excitement and gratification knowing that they are important archaeologically and anxiety knowing that they had to be recorded correctly."

The main tomb held an ornately decorated male and two sacrificial victims, with a similarly adorned woman, presumably the man's wife or lover, on a landing outside his tomb.

The discovery was the result of a collaborative effort between BYU's New World Archaeological Foundation and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia en Chiapas with co-director Emiliano Gallaga. Additional funding was provided by National Geographic and others.

The pyramid is believed to be the work of the Zoque people, who lived near the well-known Olmecs.

Some archaeologists believe Mesoamerican civilization originated with the Olmecs in the Gulf of Mexico and then spread. Others believe individual groups like the Zoques developed simultaneously and eventually merged.

Professor Robert Rosenswig, a Mesoamerican scholar at the University at Albany, said it is very likely both peoples spoke related languages and shared similar aspects of material culture.

"The tomb provides us with evidence that the same sorts of objects were put in royal burials in both regions and that they were arranged following similar principles," Rosenswig said. "Who influenced whom and to what degree is a contentious issue in Olmec studies."

Ceramic pots found in the tomb show clear signs of Olmec influence, Gallaga said, and Bachand has also discovered caches of stone axes, similar to those found in Olmec areas, that serve as another pattern of interaction.

However, Bachand said the most compelling evidence of a biological tie to the Olmec Gulf Coast could come from bone strontium evidence.

Yet the burial style, with its wooden roof and stone walls, was a distinct Zoque tradition — the type of fact Gallaga hopes gains the attention of the local, modern-day people who often identify more with a later migrant group than the Zoques.

"The debate about the Olmec presence or influence will be strong," he said. "But the Zoque presence at the site will be strengthened and hopefully reevaluated. The discovery will show that the Zoque were already a complex society very early in time … capable of building temples, plazas, platforms, etc.

"This could take the rest of our life (to study) if we wanted," Gallaga said. "But a couple of years would be good timing to explore almost all the research questions."

New World Archaeological Foundation

When the foundation began in 1952, it was not associated with BYU or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It simply was the creation of dedicated Mesoamerican scholars who happened to be Mormon and were interested in the Chiapa de Corzo region.

Those early archaeologists also discovered impressive tombs, explains former foundation director John E. Clark, but there was no media attention, just pages and pages of professional publications.

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