Archaeologists have traditionally thought that the development of Maya civilization was gradual, assuming that small villages began to emerge during the Middle Preclassic period (1000–350 bc; dates are calibrated throughout) along with the use of ceramics and the adoption of sedentism1. Recent finds of early ceremonial complexes are beginning to challenge this model. Here we describe an airborne lidar survey and excavations of the previously unknown site of Aguada Fénix (Tabasco, Mexico) with an artificial plateau, which measures 1,400 m in length and 10 to 15 m in height and has 9 causeways radiating out from it. We dated this construction to between 1000 and 800 bc using a Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. 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. Although the site exhibits some similarities to the earlier Olmec centre of San Lorenzo, the community of Aguada Fénix probably did not have marked social inequality comparable to that of San Lorenzo. Aguada Fénix and other ceremonial complexes of the same period suggest the importance of communal work in the initial development of Maya civilization.
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