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.
It "is by far the most elaborate" tomb from the period, he added, and is the only one found with 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 of the Olmecs.
"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."
Mesoamerica includes southern Mexico and most of Central America.
The tomb was near the top of a three-story pyramid at 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 Zoque, a linguistic appellation more than an ethnic one.
The Zoque flourished for more than 2,000 years, but the Aztecs defeated them in 1494. Twenty-nine years later the Spanish conquistadors invaded, 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.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.