LOS ANGELES — 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 R. 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 the acidic soil in the region and the high humidity, remains tend to decompose relatively rapidly.
The find, announced May 17, sheds new light on the origins of the Zoque, who are generally thought to be descended from early emigrants from the Olmec culture, which was centered to the west.
"For so long, the Olmec people have been considered the 'Mother Culture' where everything started in Mesoamerica," said archaeologist Carl Wendt of California State University, Fullerton, who was not involved in the research. "This find is showing that complexity is not necessarily confined to the Olmec area."
The tomb was near the top of a three-story pyramid at the site of Chiapa de Corzo, about 60 miles southeast of the Olmec coastal city of La Venta on the Gulf of Mexico. Bachand, archaeologist Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Chiapas and their colleagues have been working at the site for two years, attempting to learn more about the little-known people referred to as the Zoque, a linguistic appellation more than an ethnic one.
Evidence suggests the site was settled about 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 that 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 AD 1494 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 3.5 feet high, about 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 collapse crushed much of the tomb's contents. "The skull of the primary occupant was smashed like a pancake, which made excavation quite difficult," Bachand said.
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. "Given where they were located, there is no question that these people were the leaders, or governors, of this community, and probably of the surrounding region," Bachand said.
Two other bodies, one of an adult in his 20s and the other of a child 1 to 3 years old, were also in the tomb. "Both were placed together near the head of the principal individual, and neither had any ornaments or offerings associated with them," he said. The assumption, he added, is "that these individuals were also offerings."
The research was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Fulbright-Garcia Robles commission and private donors.
Both principals wore belts made of jade beads carved in the shape of gourds. The woman's also had a jade carving of the head of a howler monkey, while the man's bore a carved head of an alligator. The woman had a bracelet made of tiny carved ducks, and both principals had intricately crafted inlays of shell and white jade on their teeth.
"This is artistry in miniature that eclipses anything I've seen on this time horizon," Bachand said.
Artifacts in the tomb included pottery, ceremonial axes, carved amber and iron pyrite mirrors. Both iron pyrite and amber were extremely rare, another sign of elite status.