Discovery Massively Expands Known Mayan Civilization Areas

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February 4, 2018

Archaeologists using cutting-edge technology have revealed the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other evidence of Mayan civilization in Guatemala. The discovery could represent a major re-examination of the extent of the ancient Central American civilization.

The area is a wide swath of what is now the sometimes think jungle canopy of northern Guatemala. The researchers used a new technology known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to digitally strip away the vegetation, revealing the remains of human settlement underneath.

Mayan LiDAR

LiDAR shoots super-quick lasers out of an airplane and measures how long it takes the light to bounce off what's on the ground and hit cutting-edge detectors onboard the plane. The process is similar to the ways that bats use sonar to hunt. LiDAR mapping speed can reach 150,000 pulses a second.

The three-dimensional mapping in the Petén region of Guatemala was of an area of more than 800 square miles, the largest LiDAR data set ever done in archaeology.

The Maya civilization at its peak is thought to have covered an area roughly twice the size of medieval England and to have supported a population much higher. Comfortable estimates of that population size in the area known as the Maya Lowlands were in the range of 5 million; in the wake of this new evidence, archaeologists have conservatively doubled the size of the population of the civilization at its height.

Of particular interest to the archaeologists were the remains of elevated highways that connected urban centers and multifaceted industrial-sized farming systems, including not only terracing but also irrigation, suggesting that area previously thought uninhabitable because of thick jungles were, in fact, home to many, many people.

As well, defensive formations were found in outlying areas, not only in the central parts of cities, suggesting that warfare might have been more widespread, in geography and instances, than previously thought.. Also found, of course, were more pyramids, a common sight in Mayan-ruled areas.

The scanning is part of a much wider project backed by the PACUNAM Foundation, a nonprofit supporting research, preservation, and sustainable development. The three-year scanning endeavor is expected to map more than 5,000 square miles in Guatemala alone.

Similar digital technology employed in 2015 revealed buried temples and other evidence of a much more complex settlement at Angkor Wat than had previously been thought.

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