Scientists have uncovered an extraordinary network of Preclassic Maya multi-tiered cities, towns, and villages that date back to 1,000 BCE in Guatemala. The findings indicate a previously unknown culturally and economically complex kingdom-state, dispelling previous beliefs of “sparse early human occupation in the Maya Lowlands” and raising new anthropological questions about this ancient society, according to a research report published in the Cambridge University Press journal Ancient Mesoamerica in December.

Richard Hansen, an affiliate research professor at Idaho State University who led the research project, told Hyperallergic that the report demonstrates the existence of “much more sophisticated and elaborate societies, thousands of years earlier.”

“When I first started in 1978 in Guatemala, the Preclassic Maya were [thought of as] hunters and gatherers,” Hansen said.

Using airborne light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR), the archaeologists were able to map out 964 lost settlements, which they consolidated into roughly 417 ancient towns, villages, and cities. The team also identified over 100 miles of interconnected roadway. The clusters of sites were found within the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB), an area that spans northern Guatemala and southern Campeche, Mexico. Like much of the Maya Lowlands, this basin has historically been difficult for archaeologists to explore due to its dense tropical forest terrain, according to the report. New technologies such as LiDAR, however, have created more opportunities in recent years for scientists to conduct this research.

View of La Danta pyramid in El Mirador in Guatemala (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Beginning in 2015, researchers conducted two aerial surveys using LiDAR at altitudes as high as 2,100 feet. Remote sensing technology works by bouncing pulses of light off of surfaces. The time it takes for these pulses to return to the sensor is then used to determine the distance between the receptor and the surface, allowing scientists to build a detailed map of an area’s environment.

These analyses found “dense concentrations” of sites including ceremonial and religious complexes, massive triadic constructions, at least 30 ballcourts, reservoirs and terraces, defensive structures, villages, and a web of raised causeways. The labor that such constructions would have required suggest “a power to organize thousands of workers and specialists,” the report reads, from lithic technicians and architects to legal enforcement and religious officials.

One of these labor-intensive constructions identified from the LiDAR surveys includes the pyramid of Danta. Located east of the El Mirador settlement, this monumental complex stands 236 feet tall, and researchers estimate it required “between 6 and 10 million person-days of labor” to erect.

Additionally, outside of small marshes, the MCKB lacks perennial bodies of water, which forced the ancient Maya to build alternative systems for water collection and management. Researchers identified 195 artificial water reservoirs, or aguadas, as well as a series of major reservoir systems including dams and canals. 

Detailed image of some of the elaborate carvings researchers uncovered from the Preclassic Maya (courtesy Richard Hansen)

Richard Hansen has been researching the early Maya in northern Guatemala for over 38 years. As the director of the Mirador Basin Project, he has been recognized for uncovering major ancient sites in Central America. But in recent years, critics have accused his practices of going against the wishes of local Guatemalan communities. Last month during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, demonstrators disrupted a talk Hansen was giving at the University of Southern California, shouting “This is stolen land!” and carrying banners that called him a “Gringo colonizer,” according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times.

Prior to this event, Hansen has also received backlash for his work on the Mirador-Calakmul Basin Maya Security and Conservation Partnership Act, a bipartisan-backed bill introduced to the Senate in 2019. The proposed bill aimed “to create a sustainable tourism model” that would give “low-impact, controlled access” to the MCKB “with an emphasis on providing economic opportunity for the communities in and around the basin,” as per the act’s text. While Hansen argues that this bill would provide protections for the area and support local communities, critics have claimed that the act would open up the basin to large-scale tourism.

In response, Hansen claims that all these criticisms stem from the same source — an alleged misinformation campaign orchestrated by organized crime groups in Guatemala who “do not want the security and conservation of that area.” He said his research has always supported the economic and educational development of communities by hiring and training locals.

“The research is an opportunity to provide major new identities for Guatemala and Mexico,” Hansen said.

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....