Earliest Known Mesoamerican Pyramid Tomb Discovered in Mexico

Archaeologists in Mexico have uncovered a tomb inside a pyramid belonging to a king or high priest who died as many as 2,700 years ago. Three other bodies a woman also of high social status, a baby and young male adult were also found in the tomb inside the pyramid in the Chiapa de Corzo archaeological site in Chiapas district in southern Mexico.

It is the earliest evidence of a Mesoamerican pyramid used as a tomb, rather than as a temple.

The remains of the man, thought to be aged about 50 years and decorated in precious stones, were found with the body of a one-year old child lying on his chest. Nearby were the remains of a younger male adult about 20-years-old.

Human Sacrifices?

The team of anthropologists and archaeologists, led by Professor Bruce Bachand, from Brigham Young University’s department of anthropology, believe that the younger male and the baby were human sacrifices. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta, the project’s co-director from the National Institute of Anthropology and History Chiapa, said that the lack of precious material associated with these two bodies suggests that it was a sacrificial death. The 20-year-old male’s body was set in an unconventional position, suggesting it had been thrown into the burial chamber.

“The significance of this discovery is twofold: the location of this tomb on top of the pyramid and the unparralleled rarity, splendor and intricacy of the associated objects.”

The remains of a fourth person were found outside the central tomb chamber a woman, who would also have been an important member of her society, judging by the precious stones, bracelets, anklets and necklaces embellishing her body.

The tell-tale signs of these two VIPs are that the bodies are coated with red pigment and are decorated with carved jade stones. The teeth are inlaid with white jade or sea shells. Obsidian, a naturally occurring green-black mineral similar to glass, was used in the eyes of white stucco masks, while the female was also decorated with amber, pearls and pyrite.

Professor Bachand said: “The significance of this discovery is twofold: the location of this tomb on top of the pyramid and the unparralleled rarity, splendor and intricacy of the associated objects.It’s the most elaborate tomb I know of for this time period that actually contained bodies. The so-called La Venta tombs did not. Thus, we can now learn something about the occupants from their bones.” He believes it is a possibility that other pyramids at Chiapa de Corzo may also contain tombs.

Indigenous Zoque Culture

Several different cultures lived in the region 2,700 years ago some of which would have interacted with each other, making it difficult to establish which culture the four individuals in the pyramid tomb represent although the team believe they are Zoque, an indigenous culture still living in Mexico today.

The discovery was made last month by the team of experts inside Mound 11, as the pyramid in question is known. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta said: The main aim was to test the interior of Mound 11. We wanted to know when it was first constructed and to understand how it grew over time.

Mesoamerican pyramids were often built in layers much like onions or Russian dolls: a new outer layer would be built over an old pyramid and this process continued over many centuries. The team set out in January this year to excavate Mound 11 from top to soil. The tomb was found between the fourth and fifth ‘layers’ of the structure.

The reason for choosing Mound 11 was that, apart from being one of the largest remaining pyramids at Chiapa de Corzo, together with Mound 12 it forms an interesting architectural formation well-known in Mesoamerican archaeology as the ‘E-Group’ formation. E-Group complexes are associated with astronomy and ceremony in Maya culture. The current project aimed to compare this E-Group complex with another similar complex of pyramids at nearby La Venta, an archaeological site of the Olmec people in the Mexican state of Tabasco.

The Disappearing Pyramids of Chiapa de Corzo

There are more than 60 pyramids at Chiapa de Corzo, although about 30 per cent of them have been destroyed since the 1950s by local businesses. This was another factor that added some urgency to the excavation.

Mesoamerican pyramids were built primarily as temples which makes them fundamentally different to Egyptian pyramids, whose main function was a royal tomb where the mummified remains of ancient Egypt’s elite were preserved. In Mesoamerica, the pyramids were built as temples and were used for astronomy and ceremonies.

The pyramid at Palenque is an unusual exception and Mound 11 also seems to be bucking the trend. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta explained that its function would have changed with time and, having been used as a tomb early on, layers of stone would have been added to the structure and it would have been converted into a temple.

Complex Society

Very little information is available about what Chiapa de Corzo would have been like in 700 BC. Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta told me: The huge construction tells us this was a complex society and an important community. It occupied a geographically strategic path to the coast and would have had commercial and cultural interaction with central Mexico and Guatamala (as shown by the presence of jade in the pyramid).

Non-elite people during that time would have had earth burials in cemeteries, laid out in a straight position, with pots and a plate often placed above the head.

DNA and C14 tests need to be carried out see if the four individuals were local or not. These tests and analyses will take some time it could take a year for the results to become available.

Experts from Brigham Young University, The National Institute of Anthropology and History Chiapa and the Nationaly Autonomous University of Mexico are working on the project, which is funded by National Geographic.