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Cuello (Belize)

The Emergence of Village Life in the Maya Lowlands


Map of Belize with location of Cuello

Map of Belize with location of Cuello


Cuello is an ancient Maya site in the Belize lowlands. It is one of the most ancient Maya villages so far identified in the region. As is true for many very early Maya settlement, Cuello lies near to water sources, the courses of the Rio Hondo and the New River.

Previous radiocarbon dates for Cuello which placed the emergence of this village around 2000 BC have been corrected and updated to around 1000 years after. However, Cuello still represents one of the first and best documented example of the emergence of village life and incipient social differentiation in the Maya lowlands.

Research at Cuello has been carried out since 1970s by archaeologist Norman Hammond and his colleagues, revealing a long occupation sequence for the site as well as many aspects about diet, burial practices and exchange networks in the Formative/Preclassic period

Middle and Late Preclassic at Cuello

During its earliest period, Cuello was a small village where houses built of perishable materials were built on low platforms. Some houses were arranged around a central patio and contained burials under their floors with modest amounts of grave goods. However, imported goods like obsidian, jade and marine shell jewels were found accompanying a child burial, considered evidence of social differentiation in the community.

By the Middle Preclassic period, around 400 BC, some houses had been burnt down. In this period, the most important public area of Cuello was Structure 34,a large platform of about 800 square feet and 13 ft. The foundation of this platform was marked by a mass burial of over 30 people, who were probably sacrificed. In front of a small superstructure, the archaeologists found an offering of several ceramic pots and a stela. Another burial included decapitated individuals

Cuello is important also for having one of the largest sample of burials dating to the Preclassic period in the Maya region. Furthermore, artifacts carved out of animal and human bones provide a glimpse into an early local art style.

The Classic Period

During the Early Classic Period, this area of Cuello lost its ceremonial importance and another area, characterized by two plazas each with a 29 ft. high pyramid, became the new ceremonial focus. Two underground storage chambers, or chultunes, typical of the Maya region, were dug into the main platforms.

Evidence of inhabitation at Cuello continued well into the end of the Classic period and, even if less intense, until the Postclassic.

Paleobotanic analysis of plants and animal remains have helped to reconstruct the economy and subsistence pattern of this early village. Maize was important but not the only cultivation. Roots such as manioc were also cultivated since very early times and a wide range of tropical plants were collected. Hunting and fishing finally provided a rich and diverse diet.

Trade items probably moved from the Caribbean sea through the Belize and Rio Hondo rivers and reached Cuello: chert tools, grinding stones and pestle, and marine shells found in several contexts provide a glimpse into the social and economic network of this early Maya village.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Hammond, Norman (ed.), 2009 [1991], Cuello. An early Maya Community in Belize. Cambridge University Press, New York

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