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GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Archaeologists in Guatemala have discovered the grave of an ancient king credited with laying the foundations for the Mayan civilization more than two thousand years ago, experts said on Thursday.
Researchers from Guatemala uncovered the grave of King K'utz Chman, a priest who is believed to have reigned around 700 B.C., at the Tak'alik Ab'aj dig in Retalhuleu in western Guatemala.
Packed with jade jewels and other artifacts, K'utz Chman's grave is the most ancient royal Mayan burial ground found to date, investigators said.
"He was the big chief," archeologist Miguel Orrego told Reuters. "The ruler who bridged the gaps between Olmec and Mayan cultures and initiated the slow transition to Mayan rule."
Historians believe that K'utz Chman was the first leader to introduce elements that would go on to define Mayan culture, such as building pyramids instead of square structures and carving sculptures that profiled royal families.
Guatemala is studded with ruins from the ancient Mayan civilization, which thrived between A.D. 250 and 800 and extended from modern day Honduras to central Mexico.
The Olmec Empire began to fade around 400 B.C. while Mayans grew in number and wrested control of trade routes.
Inside the grave, the team found glistening jade jewels including a necklace with a pendant carved in the shape of a vulture's head, a symbol that represented power and high economic status and that was given to respected elder men.
Scientists found the grave in June, but it has taken until now for experts to verify it belonged to K'utz Chman. Although no human remains were found at the site, the carbon dated artifacts suggest that the king was buried between 770-510 B.C.
"The richness of the artifacts tells us he was an important and powerful religious leader," archeologist Christa Schieber told Reuters. "He was very likely the person who began to make the changes in the system and transition into the Mayan world."
Editing by Dave Graham and Paul Simao