The Southern Maya Area (SMA) is a part of Mesoamerica, long believed important to the rise of Maya civilization, the period that is also known as Preclassic Maya. It lies within a broad arc or cantilevered rectangle from Chiapa de Corzo, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the northwest due south to Izapa and Paso de la Amada, from Chiapa de Corzo southeast to Copán, Honduras, and from Copán south to Chalchuapa, El Salvador.
The Pacific Ocean forms the southern and western limits of the Southern Maya Area. Within this area and in addition to these sites are found the major centers of Kaminaljuyu, Takalik Abaj, Chocolá, El Sitio, El Jobo, La Blanca, Ujuxte, Palo Gordo, El Baúl, Cotzumalhuapa, Monte Alto, Semetabaj, El Portón, Zacualpa, Zaculeu, Balberta, and La Montana; many of these sites are believed to have been built and populated by speakers of Maya languages, and others by speakers of other Mesoamerican languages, including Xinca, Lenca, Mixe–Zoquean, and Pipil; accordingly, in consideration of the multilingual character of the Southern Maya Area, in many ways Southern "Maya" Area is a misnomer.〔Love and Kaplan (2011) point out that scholarship has been deficient in studying the Southern Maya Area as a cultural area unto itself, that is, without reference to other entities and areas.〕
Most of these centers developed to their apogees in the Preclassic period before declining or disappearing. In addition to these large sites, many Early Preclassic communities, found mostly along the Pacific Coast, bear witness to the seminal character of the Southern area; notably these include La Victoria, a site studied by Michael Coe that yielded the first secure ceramic sequence from early on in Preclassic times. Since Coe’s work, John E. Clark and other scholars from the New World Archaeological Foundation have found, at Paso de la Amada and other sites, ceramics that refine and deepen in time Coe’s sequence, pushing back to ca. 2000 BC the earliest nuclear centers, fine pottery, figurines, and other manifestations of the beginnings of complex society and culture in Mesoamerica. The earliest pristine ballcourt and evidence of a ranked society (a rich child's burial), indicative of emerging social hierarchization, were found at Paso de la Amada and nearby. At La Blanca, archaeologists discovered a quatrefoil made of baked clay buried near Mound 1, one of the largest and earliest temple mounds in Mesoamerica, indicating an early fount of what later became core Maya ideology.〔Love and Guernsey interpret this as an icon for a "portal: Love, Michael; with Julia Guernsey (2005). The Context and Associations of Monument 3 from La Blanca, Guatemala. The Foundation Granting Department: Reports Submitted to FAMSI. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). Retrieved on 2007-02-12.〕
==Terminological and Theoretical issues==
Controversy remains about the origins of Maya civilization as scholars continue to search for and engage in debate about the roots or first impulses of what became an ancient civilization traditionally considered to have been one of the greatest of the world. Combined with the early frame of cultural development relative to elsewhere in Mesoamerica and given that the Southern area remains distinctly mysterious with respect to how and why complex societies developed as dramatically as they did, the Southern Maya Area is almost as much a theoretical construct as it is a geographical and temporal reality. This is because topics such as cultural evolution, complex societies, early urbanism, and the construction of (ancient) identity, all framed and discussed in highly abstract ways, necessarily are raised.
If the Southern Maya Area is a part of Mesoamerica delineated from the rest of Mesoamerica spatially, temporally and, in one specific sense – by the still unresolved question of its possibly crucial role in the origins of Maya civilization - one needs to understand that posing this large research question risks falling into ultimately meaningless, infinitely regressing arguments about how “origins” might be considered or defined – essentially arguments about qualitative or inevitably subjectively rendered entities or topics, giving way to questions such as, What is “Maya civilization”? What is “Maya”? What is “civilization”? What allows us to call this or that civilization “great”? One way to conceptualize the quandary of seeking first cause/s is to understand that such an effort leads to infinite regression unless a metaconcept is accepted which, in the case of Maya civilization, is whatever it is primordially that made “Maya” “Maya.” Another way is to focus on ahistorical processes - environmental circumscription,〔See Carneiro (1970) A Theory of the Origin of the State. Science 169:733-738〕 peer polity interaction,〔See Renfrew, Colin and John F. Cherry (1986) Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-political Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge〕 and other theories.
Despite these seemingly terminologically pitfall-laden inquiries, the question of Maya origins is justified for professional focus and elaboration, since all historical topics are, by their nature, constituted not only by ascriptions weighting the given topic in importance and cast by this or that interpretation or interpretative context but also by “fact.” Of necessity, these kinds of questions are rooted in the history of scholarship about this or that topic, taking into account different or new emphases or de-emphases, usually generationally or paradigmatically determined. Accordingly, “Maya civilization” is both a reality - as John Lloyd Stephens first discovered - and a scholarly construct, with strands in the weave composed of actual patterns and “emergent” entities and characteristics but also of patterns and agentive decisions historically in the scholarly world, these, themselves, retroactively considered and reconsidered.
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