Lasers reveal ancient Mayan civilization hiding beneath Guatemalan canopy

The surveys are forcing archaeologists to completely rethink their understanding of the Mayans.
By Brooks Hays  |  Feb. 2, 2018 at 12:59 PM
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Feb. 2 (UPI) -- A series of LiDAR surveys has revealed some 60,000 ancient Mayan structures hiding under the jungle canopy in Guatemala.

The hundreds of houses, palaces and roads identified by the surveys have offered new insights into the sophisticated organization of the Mayan civilization at the height of their cultural and political dominance between 250 and 900 AD.

LiDAR stands for "Light Detection and Ranging." The technology uses short laser pulses to measure the distance between the airplane-mounted instrument -- which combines a laser, scanner and unique GPS receiver -- and Earth's surface.

Over several years, scientists have conducted surveys of large swaths of Central America, where thick jungles make field work difficult. The tiny laser pulses squeeze through gaps in the dense canopy. Scientists can take the data, filter out the LiDAR data and laser light that bounced off trees, and leave behind only what lies beneath the canopy.

In this case, what lies beneath are the remnants of an ancient civilization.

The surveys are forcing archaeologists to completely rethink their understanding of the Mayans.

"Everyone is seeing larger, denser sites. Everyone," Thomas Garrison, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, said in a news release. "There's a spectrum to it, for sure, but that's a universal: everyone has missed settlement in their [previous] mapping."

"Frankly, it's turning our discipline on its head," he said.

Garrison's research is responsible for the largest-ever LiDAR survey for an archaeological project. He and his team scanned some 800 square miles of Maya Biosphere Reserve in the lowlands of Guatemala.

The results revealed Mayan structures and organization at a scale underestimated by all previous studies. The Mayan people constructed massive terraces for farming, as well as canals and irrigation systems. They built highways linking dense urban centers.

"This was a civilization that was literally moving mountains," Marcello Canuto, an archaeologist at Tulane University, told National Geographic.

"We've had this western conceit that complex civilizations can't flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die," Canuto said. "But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia's] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there."

As monumental as the survey findings are, scientists say their work is only beginning. The massive datasets offer a giant map for future on-the-ground studies.

"That's the challenge now. Now we have so much data," Garrison said. "How do we handle it and how do we move forward with it? We've still got to get to those places, we've still got to check them out. It's difficult to convey how exciting this time is for us."

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