Archaeologists have just discovered the oldest and largest known Mayan structure, which easily tops the Great Pyramid of Giza in volume. The elevated platform made from 3.8 million cubic meters of earth and clay—discovered at Aguada Fenix in Mexico's Tabasco state, near the Guatemalan border—was constructed between 1000BC and 800BC, about 1,500 years before Mayan pyramids appeared. Between 33 and 50 feet high, it's nearly a mile long and a quarter-mile wide, reports Reuters. "Because it is so large horizontally, if you walk on it, it just looks like natural landscape," says University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata, whose research appears in Nature. The platform was only identified using an aerial remote-sensing technique that uses a pulsing laser to generate a 3D map of a surface that might otherwise by masked by vegetation.
This technique, light detection and ranging (or lidar), also revealed that the structure, perhaps used for rituals associated with calendrical cycles, is connected to a series of reservoirs and nine large causeways. The rituals "probably involved processions along the causeways and within the rectangular plaza," Inomata says, per Reuters. He notes precious items such as jade axes were left at the center of the platform. However, there are no sculptures referring to high-status individuals, which researchers see as a sign of a communal society, rather than the hierarchical one that followed in later centuries, per CNN. In fact, researchers believe the platform may have been built by a semi-nomadic group, owing to a lack of residences. In a Nature commentary, Maya archaeologist Patricia McAnany says this could alter perceptions that sedentary life preceded ritual gatherings. (Read more Maya stories.)