Is there anything the Mayans didn’t do? If you said “Build the world’s first superhighways,” give your Magic 8-Ball another shake and try again because a new study has found evidence in Guatemala of a 2,000-year-old network of roads covering over 240 km (150 miles) that was used by the Mayans there for travel and for transporting goods.
Researchers from the Cuenca Mirador Archaeological Project, led by archeologist and anthropologist Richard D. Hansen of the University of Utah, announced last week the results of a two-year study of the Petén in northern Guatemala – the largest remaining tropical forest in Central America. Hansen and his team used LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) – an aerial surveying technology utilizing lasers to make high-resolution 2D and 3D maps. They focused the LIDAR and their attention on the area where the Mayan city of El Mirador was located.
What they found was astonishing. The LIDAR penetrated the dense foliage at a rate of 560,000 dots per second and uncovered evidence of a complex transportation system based on a network of 17 highways measuring 240 km in total length. The highways were used by the estimated one million people who lived in El Mirador at its peak.
Hansen has speculated that El Mirador was a “closed political system” and the LIDAR data also provides some evidence to support this. On the roads were what appears to be a “system of pens” or corrals that were possibly used for the production and transportation of meat at an industrial level uncommon at a time when the rest of the world was still dependent on small private farms.
In fact, Hansen calls El Mirador "The first state of all the Americas" and believes that, prior to its abandonment in 150 CE, it was the largest city/state in the world at the time in both geography (2,158 sq km/833 sq m) and population. He wants to use these discoveries to turn the area in the middle of the Maya Biosphere Reserve – referred to as one of the environmental and cultural lungs of the Americas – into a protected tourist area like Machu Picchu. For that, he’ll need the cooperation and funding (an estimated $100 million) of the Guatemalan and Mexican governments to buy into his philosophy.
El Mirador is a jewel. We are only the messengers, you are the owners. Keep it.
Ironically, that will mean developing a tourism route without creating roads to visit the newly discovered superhighways of El Mirador. It will be worth it .... just to see what else the Mayans came up with before everyone else.