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LiDAR Scans Reveal Maya Civilization’s Sophisticated Network of Roads

Detailed aerial images reveal a remarkably ambitious transportation network consisting of 17 roads

View of La Danta—one of the world's largest pyramids—located in the Mirador Basin. (Dennis Jarvis)
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Archaeological investigations into the ancient Maya people continuously yield evidence of the civilization’s advanced architectural skills—just a few months ago, a small Maya pyramid was discovered inside two larger ones, the trio nested like Russian dolls. Now, researchers have uncovered another feat of Maya innovation: an extensive network of causeways deep in the jungles of Guatemala.

The causeways, Rossella Lorenzi reports for Seeker, stretch more than 150 miles through the Mirador Basin. The area was home to El Mirador, the capital of a sweeping city complex (also known as the Kan Kingdom), where as many as 200,000 people once lived. Upwards of one million people may have resided throughout the Mirador Basin communities that surrounded the ancient city. Researchers believe that the causeways, which linked these communities, were the lifeblood of the city-state, acting as a conduit for armies, food and other essentials.

British Mayanist Ian Graham first discovered the causeways in 1967 and published a map depicting roads crossing through the swampy regions of El Mirador. The Mirador Basin’s dense jungles, however, obscured just how expansive and sophisticated these roads were.

Researchers at the Mirador Basin Project deployed a Light Detection and Ranging tool, or LiDAR, to penetrate through the trees. LiDAR, explains Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech, bounces laser pulses from the Earth to a plane-mounted computer, creating topographical maps.

So far, the LiDAR scans have covered 430 square miles of jungle, and the detailed aerial images reveal a remarkably ambitious transportation network consisting of 17 roads.

The earliest dates back to 600 B.C, and the latest can be traced to 100 C.E. Project leader Richard D. Hansen, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Utah, tells Lorenzi that the causeways were “130 feet wide, up to 20 feet high and in some cases they extend as far as 25 miles."

The transportation network wasn’t the only discovery that the LiDAR scans revealed. The topographical maps also showed a sophisticated system of corrals, or animal pens, suggesting that the Maya people were producing meat at an industrial level and transporting it along the causeways.

More revelations may be forthcoming. Hansen tells Lorenzi that his team is looking to see if the new evidence will lend insight into the enduring, confounding historical mystery that cloaks the Maya culture—why El Mirador, and the rest of Maya civilization, began to abruptly decline after 150 C.E.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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