Laser Scans Reveal 60,000 Hidden Maya Structures in Guatemala

Houses, fortifications, pyramids and causeways were among the discoveries

National Geographic/Wild Blue Media

With the help of a pioneering laser-mapping technology, researchers have made a major archaeological discovery in Guatemala. According to Tom Clynes, who broke the story in a National Geographic exclusive published last week, more than 60,000 Maya structures—among them houses, fortifications, and causeways—have been identified amid the jungles of the Petén region, shaking up what experts thought they knew about the complexity and scope of Maya civilization.

The breakthrough discovery was made using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, which works by beaming millions of laser pulses from a plane to the ground below. As the wavelengths bounce back, they are measured to create detailed topographical maps. In Guatemala, LiDAR allowed a team of researchers, supported by the PACUNAM Foundation, to map more than 800 square miles of land obscured by dense foliage. 

"I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology," as Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who collaborated on the project, put it in an interview with the BBC.

Researchers have long thought that Maya cities were largely isolated and self-sustaining. But the LiDAR scans indicate that the Maya civilization was in fact interconnected and sophisticated, not unlike the ancient civilizations of Greece and China. For example, the team discovered a network of wide, elevated causeways that linked Maya cities and may have been used to facilitate trade between different regions.

The scans also suggest that the Maya civilization was much larger than previously believed; estimates had placed the population at around 5 million during the Maya classical period, which spanned from about 250-900 A.D. But the new data suggests that the population may have been as large as 10 to 15 million people, “including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable,” as National Geographic Explorer Francisco Estrada-Belli, who was also affiliated with the project, tells Clynes.

Most of the newly discovered structures appear to be stone platforms that would have supported the pole-and-thatch homes that most Maya lived in, according to Stephanie Pappas of Live Science. The survey also revealed a surprising number of defense systems from walls, to ramparts, to fortresses.

Some of the land mapped with LiDAR technology was unexplored. Other spots had been excavated previously, but LiDAR helped reveal features that archaeologists were not able to see, including a seven-story pyramid covered in vegetation. Archaeologist Tom Garrison tells Pappas of Live Science that the new maps also pointed experts toward a 30-foot fortification wall at a site called El Zotz. "I was within about 150 feet of it in 2010 and didn't see anything," he says.

These findings will be explored in more detail in Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake King, a documentary premiering February 6 on the National Geographic Channel. And the recent survey is only the first phase of PACUNAM’s LiDAR Initiative, which seeks to map more than 5,000 square miles of Guatemala’s lowlands over the course of three years.

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