U.S. and Mexican archaeologists have discovered one of the oldest tombs in Mesoamerica, a burial chamber from at least 2,500 years ago in the state of Chiapas that contains the remains of what appears to be one of the first powerful rulers of the Zoque people.
"There certainly isn't any tomb that is earlier ... and this is the only one found at the very crest of a pyramid, which makes the find rather special," said archaeologist Bruce Bachand of Brigham Young University, one of the tomb's discoverers.
The tomb "is by far the most elaborate" of those from the period, he added, and is the only one that has been found to contain human remains. Because of acidic soil in the region and high humidity, remains tend to decompose relatively rapidly.
The find was announced May 17. It sheds light on the origins of the Zoque, who are generally thought to be descended from the Olmec culture, which was centered to the west.
Evidence suggests the site was settled around 1200 B.C. by Mixe-Zoquean speakers who had strong ancestral ties to the Olmec. The village was probably initially a way station on an Olmec trading route, but evidence from the tomb and the rest of the site suggests it had become largely independent by the time of the tomb's construction, between 700 and 500 B.C.
The Zoque flourished for more than 2,000 years, but in 1494 A.D. they were invaded and defeated by the Aztecs. Twenty-nine years later, those lands were reconquered by Spanish conquistadors, and the Zoque became essentially slaves. Disease, poverty and harsh living conditions caused most to die. Today, there are apparently fewer than 100,000 Zoque speakers left.
The newly discovered tomb is actually more of a large crypt, about 31/2 feet high, 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. The ceiling was once supported by large wooden beams, but time and humidity destroyed them and the ceiling collapsed - although a large stone wall along one side of the crypt held part of it up.
The primary occupant was located in the center of the tomb and his body was coated in red paint. A female, perhaps his wife, was found on a platform outside the tomb, and she, too, was coated in red. The bodies of a man in his 20s and a young child were also in the tomb.