Dec 23, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

A 2,000-Year-Old Vast and Wealthy Lost Maya Kingdom Discovered in Guatemala with LiDAR

It sometimes seems you can’t throw a stone in Central America without hitting a spot where there was once a Maya city, Maya temple or other hidden evidence of this civilization that once numbered in the millions and was noted for its architecture, highly developed writing system, art, mathematics, calendar and other amazing and advanced characteristics which were lost when their lands were invaded by the Europeans and their history was rewritten by them. While excavation and jungle clearing for development has revealed some of its lost past, much of the Maya culture is hidden under soil or thick vegetation. That is why the new discovery in Guatemala is so significant – a geographically vast network of hundreds of long-lost settlements from 2,000 years ago has been found in the northern part of that country using LiDAR - "laser imaging, detection, and ranging" beamed from airplanes to create 3D images of hidden structures. This discover “challenges the old notion of sparse early human occupation” as it is comprised of roads, canals, a pyramid and dozens of ballcourts indicating this was a wealthy culture with leisure time for sports. What else is in this ancient Maya lost-and-found box called Guatemala?

The forests of Central America can hide a lot.

“LiDAR coverage of a large contiguous area within the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB) of northern Guatemala has identified a concentration of Preclassic Maya sites (ca. 1000 B.C.–A.D. 150) connected by causeways, forming a web of implied social, political, and economic interactions.”

In a new study published recently in the journal Cambridge Core. Richard Hansen, an archaeologist at Idaho State University and the project director, introduces the Mirador Basin Project - one of the largest, contiguous, regional LiDAR studies ever done on the Maya Lowlands region of central America that includes parts of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. Hansen and his team spent years flying airborne LiDAR devices over the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin at altitudes of about 2,000 feet. The MCKB area is predominantly low-lying swamps, known as bajos, fed by rainfall on the surrounding hills. Infrared satellite images of the swampland taken in 1992 hinted that the bajo vegetation and the tropical forests on the hills were hiding something – but those same jungles and swamps made it nearly impossible for archeologists to get there, let alone do a proper job of excavating and searching for signs of Maya settlements. LiDAR has become a proven and valuable technique for penetrating this thick covers without damaging them and revealing detailed three-dimensional images of what lies underneath. And what lies underneath in the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin is much more than Hansen and his colleagues expected to find.

“The LiDAR survey revealed an extraordinary density and distribution of Maya sites concentrated in the MCKB, many of them linked directly or indirectly by a vast causeway network. Using hillshade models derived from a LiDAR DEM, at present 775 ancient Maya settlements (defined as an architectural cluster) have been identified within the southern lowland MCKB, of which 581 are unnamed. An additional 189 ancient Maya settlements of varying sizes were identified within the geomorphological borders of the southern MCKB, including the upland karst landscape along the Mirador Anticline, for a total of 964 settlements (of all periods), of which 645 are unnamed as yet.”

For starters, the LiDAR showed a network of 964 settlements in the basin, dating from around 1000 BCE to 150 CE – the Middle and Late Pre-Classic periods of the Maya civilization. The settlements or small villages were far from isolated from each other – the LiDAR shows them to be connected by causeways, dams, dikes, canals, common reservoirs, and common bajo areas in and around the center of the settlements as well as on their borders. The LiDAR scans showed that some settlements were so close and so well-connected to each other, as well as defined by swamp boundaries, they could be considered to be mega-settlements – cities, towns and larger villages numbering around 417. Besides the canals, the archeologists also identified 110 miles of raised roads which illustrated what a vast operation this was.

“(The) elevated Preclassic causeways suggest labor investments that defy organizational capabilities of lesser polities and potentially portray the strategies of governance in the Preclassic period. Settlement distributions, architectural continuities, chronological contemporaneity, and volumetric considerations of sites provide evidence for early centralized administrative and socio-economic strategies within a defined geographical region.”

But wait … there’s more!

The sites in the MCKB have a combined total of at least 30 ballcourts scattered throughout the settlements. The one excavated at Tintal  is one of the larger ballcourts in the MCKB. The ballcourts in the MCKB consist of two parallel structures, often in a north–south axis, and measure between 30 and 60 feet long. The site of El Mirador has four small ballcourts and three larger ones in its Great Central Acropolis. IN addition to the numerous ballcourts, the LiDAR scan found a royal throne, specialized ceremonial sunken plazas, elaborate cosmological iconography, reservoirs and hydraulic systems, and massive platforms and constructions. All of this points to the Great Central Acropolis being the seat of power of the rulers in this area.

What else is hidden in the Guatemalan swamps and jungles?

Finally, the LiDAR revealed many more details of the pyramid of Danta in El Mirador. La Danta had three continuous elevated platforms and the archeologists estimated the surface was covered with 205,508 limestone blocks measuring an average size of 1.30 × 0.45 × 0.40 m (4.25 x 1.5 x 1.3 feet) – a mass that they estimate would have required 158 workers working continuously for five years just to quarry. Then, depending on the bedrock below the pyramid, it would have required 6 million to 10 million person-days of labor to build. That would need a high level of organization and management to accomplish – yet another trait of the Maya culture that has been lost in the retelling of its history. As the study concludes:

“The skeleton of the ancient political and economic structure as a kingdom-state in the Middle and Late Preclassic periods has a tantalizing presence in the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin.”

The Maya are so much more than a calendar and some ballcourts. Let’s hope these LiDAR studies are allowed to continue and result in the preservation of their ancient structures and their history.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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