digital 3-D image provided by Guatemala's Mayan Heritage and
Nature Foundation, PACUNAM, shows a depiction of the Maya
archaeological site at Tikal in Guatemala created using lidar
aerial mapping technology. (Canuto & Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM
Archaeologists have spent more than a century traipsing through
the Guatemalan jungle, Indiana Jones-style, searching through dense
vegetation to learn what they could about the Maya civilization
that was one of the dominant societies in Mesoamerica for centuries.
But the latest discovery one archaeologists are calling
a "game changer" didn't even require a can of bug spray.
Scientists using high-tech, airplane-based lidar mapping tools
have discovered tens of thousands of structures constructed by the
Maya: defense works, houses, buildings, industrial-size agricultural
fields, even new pyramids. The findings, announced Thursday, are
already reshaping long-held views about the size and scope of the
"This world, which was lost to this jungle, is all of a sudden
revealed in the data," said Albert Yu-Min Lin, an engineer and National
Geographic explorer who worked on a television special about the
new find. "And what you thought was this massively understood, studied
civilization is all of a sudden brand new again," he told
the New York Times
unearth a 500-year-old tower of skulls and another gruesome
Aztec mystery ]
Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist at Ithaca College who led
the project, called it monumental: "This is a game changer," he
told NPR. It changes "the base level at which we do Maya archaeology."
The findings were announced by Guatemala's Fundación
Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation),
also known as PACUNAM, which has been working with the lidar system
alongside a group of European and U.S. archaeologists.
The lidar system fires
rapid laser pulses at surfaces sometimes as many as 150,000
pulses per second and measures how long it takes that light
to return to sophisticated measuring equipment.
Doing that over and over again lets scientists create a topographical
map of sorts. Months of computer modeling allowed the researchers
to virtually strip away half a million acres of jungle that has
grown over the ruins. What's left is a surprisingly clear picture
of how a 10th-century Maya would see the landscape.
Scientists used similar scans to unearth a network of ancient
cities in Angkor, the heart of the Khmer empire in Cambodia that
includes the famed Angkor Wat, according
to the Times. Lidar has the potential to unearth civilizations
even in the densest jungles of Brazil.
And Garrison said the lidar data can be used in other fields.
"We don't use about 92 percent of the lidar data. We just throw
it out to make our maps," he told The Washington Post. "But
there is incredibly valuable information in that forestry data.
You're just seeing the archaeology part because that's what we focused
on, but that data can be used to determine how jungles recover from
forest fires, what's the carbon footprint."
Still, that 8 percent of data was as astonishing as it was humbling,
The planes that shot lidar pulses at pieces of the Guatemalan
jungle did so in a matter of days, Garrison said. It unearthed Maya
structures researchers had literally walked over before, including
a temple they thought was a hill.
"There was this fortress in our area," Garrison told The Washington
Post. "In 2010, I was within 150 feet of this thing, which would
have been a massive discovery in 2010."
Using the data, researchers have been able to refine their thoughts
about Maya civilization.
to the Associated Press, researchers now believe that as many
as 10 million people may have lived in the area known as the Maya
Lowlands two or three times as many as scientists had thought.
And because all those people needed to eat, in some areas, 95 percent
of available land was drained including areas that have not
been farmed since the Maya fell.
"Their agriculture is much more intensive and therefore sustainable
than we thought, and they were cultivating every inch of the land,"
Francisco Estrada-Belli, a research assistant professor at Tulane
University, told the AP.
During the Maya classic period, which stretched from A.D.
250 to 900, the civilization covered an area twice the size
of medieval England, according
to National Geographic, and was much more densely populated.
Teotihuacan ruins may have been "Teohuacan" ]
"Most people had been comfortable with population estimates
of around 5 million," said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multidisciplinary
archaeological project at Holmul, Guatemala. "With this new data,
it's no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million
people there including many living in low-lying, swampy areas
that many of us had thought uninhabitable."
Lidar revealed a previously undetected structure that Garrison
said "can't be called anything other than a Maya fortress."
That and other newly discovered fortresses indicate that the
Maya may have been involved in more conflict even outright
warfare than previously believed, and at earlier points in
"While we've known that the Maya practiced warfare, we haven't
see this investment in warlike things," Garrison said. "Here
we have these features at the beginning of the apex of their civilization.
That's really interesting. What role does warfare play in society?
Is it actually a catalyst for growth and development?"
Researchers also have a newfound way of thinking about the jungle:
as both impediment and preserver.
The remains of other cultures have been destroyed by generation
upon generation of farming. But after the Maya abandoned their empire
in A.D. 900, the jungle grew over abandoned fields and structures.
It hid them but also helped to conserve them.
"In this, the jungle, which has hindered us in our discovery
efforts for so long, has actually worked as this great preservative
tool of the impact the culture had across the landscape," Garrison