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(Photograph John Hodgson, NWAF)

Last winter, archaeologists excavating Mound 11 in the pre-Columbian city of Chiapa de Corzo in southern Mexico simply hoped to establish its construction date. But in March, after having jackhammered through the remains of a modern cement water tank atop the 30-foot mound and digging down nearly 15 feet, they discovered what may be Mesoamerica’s oldest known pyramid tomb, the 2,700-year-old crypt of a high-status man who died in his 50s. The team, led by Brigham Young University’s Bruce Bachand and Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, also found the remains of an elite woman beside the tomb; the man and woman were coated with red pigment and buried with nearly 3,000 pieces of jade.

First settled around 1200 B.C., Chiapa de Corzo was a thriving center of the Zoque, who descended from the Olmec. The city lay on a trade route that linked central Mexico, the Gulf, the Pacific Coast, and present-day Guatemala. The tomb dates to around 700 B.C., when new societies were emerging in Mesoamerica, and when the Zoque culture split from its Olmec roots and went on to flower in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Tabasco. “We hope that the find will give the Zoque the place they deserve as a complex community among their peers in the pre-Hispanic world,” says Murrieta.

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