Stepped pyramids and open squares – or plazas – were a feature of many early Mayan sites from around 800 BC. At this time, the Olmec was the major civilisation and the dominant influence in Mesoamerica. Because pyramids dating to 800 BC are also found at the key Olmec site of La Venta in what is now Mexico, many archaeologists think the Maya got their pyramid-building know-how from the Olmec.
However, new finds from an early Mayan site called Ceibal in central Guatemala suggest otherwise. Takeshi Inomata at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and his colleagues have excavated the site, and discovered a small pyramid and several large platforms – including one that is 55 metres long and 1 metre tall – that are unmistakeably similar to those associated with plaza-pyramid architecture at La Venta.