Friday, July 2, 2010

Monte Alto Culture: The Key to Understand Guatemala's Ancient History?

As we have learned in our journey, during a trip to Guatemala, the heart of Mesoamerica, visitors will discover a rich, sometimes violent, but always fascinating cultural history.
The cultural ancient history of Mesoamerica can be divided into three periods: The Pre-Classic from 2000 BC to 250 AD, (Early: 2000 BC to 800 BC, Middle: 800 to 400 BC, and Late 400 BC to 250 AD), Classic from 250 to 900 AD, (Early 250 to 550 AD, Middle from 550 to 700 AD and Late 700 to 900 AD), and Post Classic from 900 to 1500 AD, (Early 900 to 1200 AD, and Late 1200 to 1500 AD).
The first proof of human settlers in Guatemala dates at least as far back as 10,000 BC, although there is some evidence that put this date at 18,000 BC. The evidence includes obsidian arrowheads uncovered at various archeological sites.
The archaeological evidence concludes that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Peten and the Pacific coast indicate that corn cultivation was developed by 3,500 BC. The earliest Maya civilizations began to emerge in the highlands of Guatemala by as early as 2,000 BC.
By 2,500 BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific lowlands, including such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, and Ujuxte, where the oldest and beautifully designed ceramic pottery from Guatemala has been found. A heavy concentration of pottery on the Pacific coast has been documented dating from 2,000 BC.
Recent excavations suggest that the Highlands were a geographic and temporal bridge between Early Pre-classic villages of the Pacific coast and later Peten lowlands cities. There are at least 5,000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 3,000 of them in Peten alone.
In Monte Alto near the municipality of La Democracia, Escuintla, giant stone heads and Potbellies (called Barrigones in Spanish) dating from 1800 BC, have been found. These are ascribed to the Pre-Olmec Monte Alto Culture, and some scholars suggest the Olmec Culture originated in this area of the Pacific Lowlands. However, it has also been argued that the only connection between these statues and the later Olmec heads is their size. Nonetheless, it is likely the Monte Alto Culture was the first complex culture of Mesoamerica, and predecessor of all other cultures of the region. In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistakable Olmec style, such as Tak'alik Ab'aj, in Retalhuleu, which is the only ancient city in the Americas with both, Olmec and Mayan features.
Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of El Mirador Basin in northern Peten, believes the Maya at that location developed the first true political state in America, (The Kan Kingdom), around 1,500 BC. Further, he disputes the common belief that the Olmec were the mother culture in Mesoamerica. Due to recent findings at El Mirador Basin, Hansen suggests  that the Olmec and Maya cultures developed separately, and then merged in some areas, such as Tak'alik Ab'aj on the Pacific Lowlands. There is no evidence yet to link the Pre-classic Maya from Peten and those from the Pacific coast, but Dr. Hansen believes they had cultural and economical links.
It is too bad that many questions will remain unanswered since countless pieces have been either destroyed or stolen throughout  the last centuries and there are many that, before protection laws were issued, were sent to foreign countries where they still are featured in museums.

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