In Brief

Archaeologist Discovers Ancient Mayan City Built on a Grid

A rendering of the city grid (Image courtesy Timothy Pugh)
A rendering of the city grid (image courtesy Timothy Pugh)

If you’ve ever found yourself lost in Manhattan, you know that city grids are a beautiful thing. With streets running neatly east-west and north-south, it’s not hard to get yourself pointed back in the right direction.

It appears that Maya people may have enjoyed those same benefits more than 2,000 years ago. According to Live Science, archaeologists in northern Guatemala have found a settlement dating from between 600 and 300 BCE that was similarly planned out on a grid — the first of its kind in Central America.

The discovery was made by Queens College professor Timothy Pugh, who presented his findings at the Society for American Archaeology‘s annual meeting in San Francisco. The archaeologist has worked at the Nixtun-Chi’ich’ site in Petén since 1995, excavating more recent remains atop the old ruins. In the process, he found himself mapping the ancient city.

mayan city edge
Excavating the edge of the city, Pugh found the remains of white plaster walls. (image courtesy Evelyn Chan)

Pugh was shocked to find its streets immaculately laid out. An east-west ceremonial route was lined with about 15 buildings and boxy pyramids soaring nearly 100 feet high in a line, while residential neighborhoods occupied the northern and southern blocks. There was also a defensive earthen and stone wall surrounding the city, suggesting its residents were keen to keep intruders out.

Though the Aztec city of Teotihuacan in Mexico was also systematically laid out on a grid, no such Mayan cities have yet been found. Pugh told Live Science that the city’s organization was unprecedented. “Most Mayan cities are nicely spread out. They have roads just like this, but they’re not gridded,” he said.

He speculated that the attention to urban design was likely mandated by a mighty, yet-unknown sovereign. “It’s a top-down organization,” he explained. “Some sort of really, really powerful ruler had to put this together.”

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