For centuries, tens of thousands of structures built by Maya lay hidden beneath tree canopies of a thick Guatemalan jungle, unknown to archaeologists all this time. High-tech laser technology, deployed from airplanes, has now revealed these ruins in a breakthrough discovery. Researchers have identified traces of over 60,000 previously undetected human-built structures, including houses, palaces, irrigation canals, and elevated highways. Their findings, detailed in an exclusive report by National Geographic, are reshaping our understanding of the ancient civilization, revealing it to be comparable to complex, populous cultures such as ancient Greece or China.
Led by the nonprofit PACUNAM Foundation, the project relied on LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”) technology, which required only aerial observation of a section of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The method involves a device that scans the earth from an airplane, by sending laser light across the ground that can penetrate thick canopies to record the topography of a region. The researchers mapped over 800 square miles of the natural reserve, a task that yielded the largest LiDAR data set ever produced for archaeological research. Although some ancient settlements, such as the city of Tikal, can be seen from above, the jungles evidently concealed much, much more.
“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” archaeologist and NatGeo Explorer Thomas Garrison, one of the project’s researchers, said. Archaeologist Estrada-Belli told National Geographic that the new data suggests that the number of people who lived there, at the civilization’s peak about 1,200 years ago, might be around 10 to 15 million — two or three times larger than long-held population estimates.
The images revealed traces of the marvels of ancient city planning: roads, elevated over wetlands that connected sections of the metropolis and fostered trade; fields with irrigation and terracing systems; canals and reservoirs, which controlled water flow. They also showed that archaeologists weren’t the first modern-day humans to come across these ruins. Looters, as evidenced by thousands of pits, have already damaged the site.
Archaeologists will later evaluate the area through the more traditional method of terrestrial exploration. They plan to eventually map over 5,000 square miles of Guatemala’s lowlands and identify more sites. For now, their current findings will be further explored in an hour-long documentary titled Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings, which premieres tomorrow, February 6 on the National Geographic Channel.