18 May 2010

Oldest known Mesoamerican pyramid tomb, found in Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico.

After sheltering jeweled royals for centuries, the oldest known tomb in Mesoamerica—ancient Central America and Mexico, roughly speaking—has been uncovered, archaeologists announced Tuesday (today).

Apparently caught between two cultures, the 2,700-year-old pyramid in Chiapa de Corzo (map), Mexico, may help settle a debate as to when and how the mysterious Zoque civilization arose, according to excavation leader Bruce Bachand.

At the time of the pyramid tomb's dedication, hundreds of artisans, vendors, and farmers would have known Chiapa de Corzo as a muggy town, redolent with wood smoke and incense.

Above them towered the three-story-tall pyramid, a "visually permanent and physically imposing reminder" of their past rulers and emerging cultural identity, said Bachand, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University.

The two rulers found with the pyramid-top tomb had been coated head-to-toe in sacred red pigment. At the center of the tomb, Bachand's team found a male in a pearl-beaded loincloth. To his side lay a companion, likely a female.

On their waists were jade beads shaped like howler monkeys, crocodiles, and gourds. Seashells inlaid with obsidian formed tiny masks for their mouths, which in turn held jade and pyrite ornaments.

Arrayed around the royal corpses were offerings to the gods: ceramic pots, ritual axes perhaps associated with fertility, iron-pyrite mirrors, and a red-painted stucco mask.

"These people were at the top of society, there is no doubt about it," said Bachand, whose work was partly funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Slightly lower on society's ladder were two apparent human sacrifices, an adult and child, who looked as if they'd been tossed into the tomb. The adult was slumped against the side of the crypt, an arm craned awkwardly over his or her head, Bachand said. To read the article in its entirety, visit National Geographic's DAILY NEWS!

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