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The city of Angamuco, which occupies a lava field on the eastern edge of the Lake Pátzcuaro basin. Photograph: C Fisher

The city of Angamuco, which occupies a lava field on the eastern edge of the Lake Pátzcuaro basin. Photograph: C Fisher

LiDAR is a technology we outlined earlier this month in identifying Mayan ruins. It is the same technology used in self driving cars. It has applications in archaeology because it can scan geography much faster than humans can. For example, when Purépecha Empire‘s Angamuco city in Mexico was excavated the old-fashioned way a decade ago, it took two seasons to explore two square kilometres. The Purépecha coexisted with Aztecs. Nowhere near as popular as their rivals, they were nonetheless a still a major civilization. The imperial capital called Tzintzuntzan is in western Mexico.

Examples of sunken plazas, patios, and related features in Angamuco. Photograph: C Fisher

Examples of sunken plazas, patios, and related features in Angamuco. Photograph: C Fisher

Now, with the use of LiDAR Angamuco city is known to occupied 26 square kilometers of instead of 13 square kilometers. Within the city, there were around 1,500 structures per square kilometer of land. Colorado State University archaeologist Chris Fisher presented these finding and told The Guardian

 “That is a huge area with a lot of people and a lot of architectural foundations that are represented. If you do the maths, all of a sudden you are talking about 40,000 building foundations up there, which is [about] the same number of building foundations that are on the island of Manhattan.”

One of Angamuco’s ‘neighbourhoods’, revealed using light detection and ranging scanning. Photograph: C Fisher

One of Angamuco’s ‘neighbourhoods’, revealed using light detection and ranging scanning. Photograph: C Fisher

Angamuco is now the biggest city in western Mexico during that period that we know of. The use of LiDAR is becoming more and more common in archaeology. It allows researchers to scan large areas of land in mere minutes. And it creates a 3D map of the landscape by firing a rapid succession of laser pulses at the ground from a plane. Those pulses can penetrate foliage and soil, enabling scientists to see what’s underneath them all without having to cut down a single tree. I am excited to see the technology used to find out more about our ancient civilizations that we didn’t know about

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