Jungle-Piercing Lasers Unveil Thousands of Ancient Mayan Structures, From Houses to Pyramids

(Image credit: IFL Science)

For over 1,000 years, an ancient city has been untouched by human beings for the most part.


Below the green, dense and lush Petén rainforest of Guatemala lies the city, which was inhabited by millions of Mesoamerican native people who built what some refer to as an empire, but others would refer to it as home.

For the first time now, tens of thousands of incredible ancient structures have been identified and mapped out by a team of international archaeologists. They used techniques involving airborne light detection and ranging technology over 810 square miles or 2,100 square kilometers of the Guatemalan lowland.

(Image credit: naturephoto-cz.)

In 2009, that LiDAR technique was first applied to the region. It focused on nothing but the immediate surroundings of particular individual sites. In February however, this vast metropolis was first discovered by archaeologists, as reported by the usual mainstream outlets to acknowledge such discoveries.

A science nonprofit group from Guatemala called the PACUNAM Foundation led the discovery, and six months later, their work is published in the journal Science.

This is insane: over 61,000 ancient structures have been confirmed within this area, and that includes houses, ceremonial centers, pyramids, and large palaces.

(Image credit: IFL Science)

The thick, dense and rich forest canopy was penetrated by this LiDAR system, and that revealed distinct changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to, according to one article“identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.”

“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a member of the team in a statement.

(Image credit: IFL Science)

Now it has been indicated that upwards of 7 to 11 million people were present in this place at the height of what is referred to as the Late Classic period, lasting from around 650 – 800 CE. Over 61,000 ancient structures have been identified in this surveyed region alone. If you want some perspective on that 7 – 11 million number, today New York City is home to about 8.5 million people.

Something unique about the situation seems to be the fact that the populations were very unevenly distributed, with varying levels of “urbanization,” spread out more than modern cities over 810 square miles, or 1,200 square kilometers.

It was even reported that these people figured out how to support such a large population in a creative way, and they modified the land for the intense agricultural production.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Marcello A. Canuto, a Maya archaeologist. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Extensive networks and causeways were also mapped out by the team, and those chambers connected the various urban centers according to them. The different city centers seem to have been extensively connected, with a much different distribution of population compared to today’s cities. Defensive systems were also at play in these places.

The authors concluded that their findings “generate new questions, refine targets for fieldwork, elicit regional study across continuous landscapes, and advance Maya archaeology into a bold era of research and exploration.”

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