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Laser technology known as LiDAR digitally removes the forest canopy to reveal ancient ruins below, showing that Maya cities such as Tikal were much larger than ground-based research had suggested.

Laser technology known as LiDAR digitally removes the forest canopy to reveal ancient ruins below, showing that Maya cities such as Tikal were much larger than ground-based research had suggested.

After mapping over 810 square miles (2,100 sq km) in northern Peten, Guatemala more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other undiscovered hidden features have been identified using LiDAR technology. LiDAR allows one to remove the canopy from images to identify underlying structures. These discoveries were lead by Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist, as part of the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation.

Laser scans revealed more than 60,000 previously unknown Maya structures that were part of a vast network of cities, fortifications, farms, and highways.

Laser scans revealed more than 60,000 previously unknown Maya structures that were part of a vast network of cities, fortifications, farms, and highways.

This is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology because it shows us Mayan culture is grossly underestimated. Based off these scan, cities like Tikal could be three or four times greater than previously thought. Furthermore, raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries with complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape. Therefore, Mayan culture at its peak some 1,200 years ago, was as likely as sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than what we previously thought of as scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.

The unaided eye sees only jungle and an overgrown mound, but LiDAR and augmented reality software reveal an ancient Maya pyramid. COURTESY WILD BLUE MEDIA/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The unaided eye sees only jungle and an overgrown mound, but LiDAR and augmented reality software reveal an ancient Maya pyramid. COURTESY WILD BLUE MEDIA/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist, comments,

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million. With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

The exciting thing is these results are just from the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative. The goal is this will be a three-year project that will eventually map more than 5,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of Guatemala’s lowlands, part of a pre-Columbian settlement system that extended north to the Gulf of Mexico.

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