Rather than being reserved solely for royalty, scientists now believe ancient Mayan stone pyramid temples may have also been built for nobles, priests and perhaps commoners.
The fact that different groups had the will and the power to build temples suggests "the Maya could choose which temples to worship in and support; they had a voice in who succeeded politically," said researcher Lisa Lucero, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The first temples of the Maya arose more than 2,000 years ago. Their word for these stone pyramids was the same as their word for mountain, and the massive stepped temples at times reached more than 200 feet high.
"Human sacrifice did occur at temples, but only rarely, unlike the Aztec, who sacrificed daily in the belief the sun would not rise otherwise," Lucero said. "Only a few powerful Maya kings performed human sacrifice, and they did it to kill rulers from elsewhere. And they didn't do it to bring, say, better weather, but to highlight 'me, me, me.'"
Lucero and her colleagues investigated temples in Yalbac, a Mayan center in the steaming jungles of central Belize. Mysteriously, there are six temples all close together in Yalbac, ranging from 25 to 50 feet high.
Upon investigating each temple -- which date from the Late Classic period of Mayan history, about 550 to 850 A.D. -- Lucero noted their construction and materials could differ from each other quite significantly. Two higher quality temples used larger outermost stones and more mortar to fill the insides of the pyramids.
"These essentially cost more money, and may have been royal," Lucero said. "But the other temples may not have been built by royalty at all."
Each temple might have served a different god, such as the rain god Chak, or the sun god or maize god. The building of each temple might also serve as a record of ancient power struggles.