“If you build it, he will come.”
That may be true in movies about old baseball players, but when it comes to old plazas of the Mayans, a better saying might be, “If you build it, they will come and find it … eventually.” That’s the case in a Guatemalan jungle where researchers using airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) have located over 60,000 distinct Mayan structures hidden by dense vegetation too difficult to explore on the ground. Those structures include a pyramid complex and were surrounded by an extensive network of roads. Were they expecting us?
“Even though some earlier lidar studies had prepared us for this, just seeing the sheer quantity of ancient structures across the landscape was mind-boggling.”
In a study published in Science, Ithaca College archeologist and co-author Thomas Garrison, described the Lidar scanning which began in July 2016 in northern Guatemala near the Mexican border. In a 12 period, they flew over 800 square miles of jungle, firing three lasers at 300,000 pulses of light per second. Lasers that managed to penetrate the canopy and then bounce back were picked up by a detector, which collected enough data to create a 3-D map of the topography with one-meter resolution.
“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable.”
Marcello A. Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane and study co-author, described the unbelievable scenes the archeologists saw on the map (see a video here and map samples here). It shows that the area was much more densely populated than previously thought – possibly between 7 million and 11 million people in this Maya Lowlands area at its peak during the Late Classical Period (650 to 800 CE). The irrigation canals and farm areas indicate how necessary and important agriculture was to this Mayan civilization, and how they changed the topology to accommodate it without the use of plows – techniques that could help farmers today.
The power of LiDAR was shown in the discovery of the pyramid, a large structure that has somehow not been found in previous other searches of the area. And the abundance of roads and fortifications indicates that the Mayans were militarized defensively and waging wars earlier than previously thought. However, the LiDAR mapping is limited in that it can’t identify what time period the various structures existed in, giving instead one picture covering centuries of existence, as Garrison explains to Gizmodo.
“Not everything was occupied all at the same time, and it is now our job as archaeologists to sort all of this out. But we’re certainly happy to have these new problems!”
Spoken like a true archaeologist. They built it and he will keep on coming.