guatamala mayan civilisation ruins

Aerial lidar discovers 60,000 previously unknown Mayan structures

Image credit: Dreamstime

Lidar has been used by a team of international archaeologists to uncover thousands of previously unknown ancient Maya structures.

Lidar (light and radar) uses laser precision to sense the surrounding environment. Laser beams are emitted and the amount of time taken for them to be reflected from objects and return to the sensor is measured.

This provides the distances from various objects and allows a three-dimensional map of the environment to be built up quickly.

Using this technique, the archaeologist discovered numerous Mayan structures in Guatemala including pyramids, palaces and causeways.

More than 60,000 previously unknown structures were revealed that are interconnected through a vast network of cities, fortifications, farms and highways.

The find allowed the researchers to map the outlines of what they describe as dozens of newly discovered Maya cities hidden under thick jungle foliage centuries after they were abandoned by their original inhabitants, according to a statement issued on Thursday by Guatemala’s PACUNAM foundation.

Over 2,000 square kilometres of Guatemalan forest were surveyed by plane. The findings are depicted in new digital maps and an augmented-reality application that translates the aerial data into a ground view.

They suggest earlier Maya population assessments of one to two million fall far short of new estimates that suggest there could have been up to 20 million inhabitants across the Maya Lowlands.

The ancient Maya civilization was one of the most advanced to arise in Mesoamerica, marked by sophisticated mathematics and engineering that allowed it to spread throughout present-day Central America and southern Mexico.

“The fortified structures and large causeways reveal modifications to the natural landscape made by the Maya on a previously unimaginable scale,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli of Tulane University.

“There are entire cities we didn’t know about now showing up in the survey data. There are 20,000 square kilometres more to be explored and there are going to be hundreds of cities in there that we don’t know about. I guarantee you.”

The team of archaeologists surveyed more than 2,100 sq km of the Peten jungle and even revealed a pyramid in the heart of the ancient Maya city of Tikal, a major tourist destination in north-eastern Guatemala.

The pyramid measures nearly 30m tall and was previously thought to be a small mountain.

The earliest Maya settlements were constructed around 1,000 BC, and most major Maya cities collapsed by 900 AD. The cause of the collapse remains the focus of intense academic debate.

“It’s like a magic trick,” said Tom Garrison, one of the archaeologists leading the project. “The survey is the most important development in Maya archaeology in 100 years.”

Last month scientists used lidar to document and digitally preserve the first known set of theropod dinosaur tracks in the state of Arkansas. 

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