- The Maya civilisation was far more complex, populous, and technologically advanced than researchers previously thought.
- Researchers used Lidar, a type of aerial laser-detection system, to uncover 61,000 previously unknown structures hidden under the dense Guatemalan jungle dating to the Maya Late Classic Period (650 – 800 CE).
- The region could have supported an urbanized network of approximately 11 million people.
Using state-of-the-art laser technology, archaeologists uncovered over 61,000 previously unknown Maya structures deep in the Guatemalan jungle, including foundations for houses, military fortifications, and elevated causeways.
The finding “compels” a reevaluation of the complexity of Maya civilisation, according to new research published in the journal Science.
The paper, which builds on previous research published in February, suggests the Maya society of the Late Classic Period (650 – 800 CE) was far more populous and politically organised than previously thought.
“We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and researcher on the project, told National Geographic when the previous research was released.
The researchers estimate that the region could have supported a population of approximately 11 million people, bolstered by a network of heavily-fortified roadways and irrigation canals connecting vast, urbanized areas.
To get at that estimate, the team, led by Marcello A. Canuto and Estrada-Belli of Tulane University, and Thomas G. Garrison of Ithaca, used Lidar data to map 12 areas in Peten, Guatemala.
At the Maya civilisation’s zenith, some 1,500 years ago, emissaries from different cities may have used the elevated causeways to trade goods like corn, or even for military conquest. The researchers found evidence that people had expertly altered the landscape to control the flow of precipitation to water crops and keep floodwaters from damaging buildings.
Here’s a visualisation produced by the researchers of the Maya structures hidden below the dense jungle. The Lidar data makes it possible to study and visualise ancient Maya cities like never before, according to the researchers:
Lidar technology is a game-changer for archaeologists
Lidar, the technology used by the researchers to uncover the structures, uses millions of laser pulses to detect structures underneath the dense jungle foliage that are almost invisible to the naked eye.
The instrument is mounted on aircraft, like a light aeroplane or a helicopter, and the wavelengths of light are measured as they bounce back – much like a ship uses sonar to gauge depth.
These signals are then used to produce detailed, three-dimensional topographic maps of the ground underneath the jungle’s vegetation and layers of sediment. Skilled observers can pick out manmade structures, and further analysis can tell the researchers the size of the structure and when it may have been created in order to build a detailed timeline of Mayan history. It saves a lot of time trudging around the jungle.
In decades of examining these sites in the remote Petén region of Guatemala, archaeologists didn’t have a clue these structures were right beneath their feet.
The structures uncovered by the team suggest that instead of living in isolated city-states, the Mayas controlled huge territories with millions of people, industrial-scale food production, and sophisticated trade networks – on the scale of Ancient Greece or Rome.
But while Lidar has been a game-changer for archaeologists working in the dense, remote Guatemalan jungle, the researchers say it can’t completely replace traditional “boots on the ground” archaeology.
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