An archaeologist from the University of Arizona recently found over two dozen previously unknown Mayan sites all while sitting at his desk. Takeshi Inomata found a free lidar (light detection and ranging) map online and that’s what he used to make the huge discovery.
The lidar technology provides scientists with a way of scanning archaeological sites using airborne lasers. They can even see through dense forests and pick out shapes of old buildings and settlements that once stood at the location.
The free map that Dr. Inomata studied was originally published by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography in 2011 and covered a total of 4,440 square miles in Tabasco and Chiapas, Mexico. While the map’s resolution was low, he was still able to find the ruins of 27 previously unknown Maya ceremonial centers. What’s even more incredible is that the ruins were constructed in a way that has never been seen before by archaeologists. Some of the large rectangular platforms that were very low to the ground measured as long as two-thirds of a mile and are believed to be as old as 1000 B.C. to 700 B.C.
Dr. Inomata and his wife Daniela Triadan are currently leading excavations at the biggest ceremonial center (they named it Aguada Fenix) that was recently discovered in hopes of learning more about the Mayan culture’s rituals.
In 2005, he and his wife started excavating the ancient city of Ceibal which is located in the Petén rainforest in Guatemala. They uncovered several of the earliest known buildings in the Mayan culture with the ceremonial center being as old as 950 B.C.
“The stuff he is finding is crucial for our understanding of how Maya civilization developed,” stated Arlen Chase who is an archaeologist at Pomona College. For many years, Dr. Inomata has been interested in finding out how the Maya culture began between 1000 B.C. and 400 B.C. and his work is providing important information in figuring that out.
Charles Golden, who is an anthropology professor at Brandeis University, also took a look at some lidar maps and discovered numerous ancient settlements close to the Usumacinta River which borders Mexico and Guatemala.
In other news, a new study suggests that Mayans could have unintentionally caused their own demise by changing the climate. Researchers found evidence in Belize that indicates the Mayans created canals and wetlands to accommodate their rising population, as well as often performing “burn events” while they worked on their farms which created more carbon dioxide and methane in the air that they breathed.
In a statement, the study’s lead author Tim Beach said, “We now are beginning to understand the full human imprint of the Anthropocene in tropical forests,” adding, “These large and complex wetland networks may have changed climate long before industrialization and these may be the answer to the long-standing question of how a great rainforest civilization fed itself.”
According to their study, the Birds of Paradise wetland was “five times larger than previously discovered”. Additionally, they discovered another wetland field in Belize that was even larger. “These perennial wetlands were very attractive during the severe Maya droughts, but the Maya also had to be careful with water quality to maintain productivity and human health,” explained Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach who was the study’s co-author.
The increase in methane in the atmosphere is believed to have happened between 1,800 and 1,000 years ago which coincides with the growing number of Maya wetlands. “Even these small changes may have warmed the planet, which provides a sobering perspective for the order of magnitude greater changes over the last century that are accelerating into the future,” Beach stated. Their research can be read in full here.