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Archaeologists Fight Developers

June 8, 1999

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) _ With a real estate development in the works, archaeologists are fighting for a chance to study a site they say could provide clues to the fate of a famed ancient culture along the Gulf of Mexico.

The site _ now just a cluster of dirt-covered mounds called El Dorado _ is in the 200-acre Mandinga mangrove swamp along the Jamapa River, just 13 miles south of the port of Veracruz.

The Mandinga Swamp Promotion and Construction company had started draining the swamp and parceling it to create a luxury housing project with a marina when the government’s National Anthropology and History Institute discovered the plan in November.

The institute got injunctions to stop construction and has been negotiating with the developer over ways to save the site.

A few months before the work started, Annick Daneels, a Belgian archaeologist at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University, had completed a study indicating the five-acre El Dorado site was important.

Archaeologists say it could hold clues to the fate of the Olmecs, best known for the colossal, mysterious stone heads they carved. They flourished from 1200 BC to 400 BC, then their culture disappeared.

Daneels, who has been working in Mexico for 17 years, estimates El Dorado was inhabited from around 800 BC to AD 1200, and appears to be the only site in the area with such a prolonged period of habitation.

``There is a small ceremonial site there, and from what I have been able to determine from superficial evidence, it had a long period of occupation. That alone makes it more than quite important,″ she said.

Daneels and Fernando Winfield Capitaine, former director of the Jalapa Museum of Anthropology, said El Dorado could have been peopled by Zoques, a people suspected of being direct descendants of the Olmecs.

Winfield, an anthropologist, believes the Zoques lived in ``chieftainships,″ communities much like the city-states of medieval Europe.

Among them was La Mojarra, another swamp ``chieftainship″ 20 miles south of the port of Alvarado where archaeologists found a huge stone pillar a decade ago with one of the continent’s most important hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Winfield said the Zoques lived in relative harmony with the Totonacas to the north and traded salt for other goods with the Tlaxcalas, enemies of the Aztecs in the highlands of central Mexico.

Real estate agents in Veracruz state estimate the Mandinga Swamp real estate project, divided in 2,700-square-foot plots, is worth $1 million and will eventually _ if successful _ be worth at least $10 million.

Mandinga Swamp Promotion says it was not aware the area included an archaeological site. It has not yet accepted the institute’s proposal that it help finance a study of the area.

Luis Alberto Lopez Wario, director of the institute’s archaeological safeguards department, said the institute has proposed a five-month study of El Dorado by six noted archaeologists so the agency can determine which areas can be developed and which should be protected as archaeological sites.

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