Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

A vast, interconnected network of ancient cities was home to millions more people than previously thought.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations


Mayan Calakmul Pyramid

Pyramids, like Calakmul, in Campeche, Mexico, are iconic of the Maya. But infrastructure, its roads and irrigation, were the backbone of Maya civilization.

Andy Cannon/Shutterstock
Pyramids, like Calakmul, in Campeche, Mexico, are iconic of the Maya. But infrastructure, its roads and irrigation, were the backbone of Maya civilization.
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Researchers are celebrating a major discovery in Maya archaeology. In the jungles of northern Guatemala, hidden ruins have been found for the first time in hundreds of years. Guatemala is a country in Central America. The ruins include houses, highways and other human-made buildings.

To find these ruins, scholars used a new technology known as LiDAR. It stands for Light Detection And Ranging. A LiDAR system is put on a satellite or plane. Then the system uses its lasers to measure distances to Earth. The lights combine with other data recorded by the system to create a 3-D image of the ground.With LiDAR, scholars were able to remove trees from images to reveal the ruins of a vast pre-Columbian society. The ruins were far more complicated and interconnected than most Maya scholars had thought before.

Protecting Cultural History
A group of scholars are studying the Maya. This project is led by the PACUNAM Foundation. The Guatemalan nonprofit wants to explore nature using science. It also wants to protect the cultural history of the region.

The project mapped more than 2,100 square kilometers (800 square miles) of land in Guatemala. That is a little bigger than the Hawaiian island of Maui, in the United States. The number of LiDAR images is the largest ever secured for archaeological studies.

The images suggest that Central America supported an advanced society. People had previously thought Maya society was made of scattered city-states. Now, they compare the Maya to civilizations like those in ancient Greece or China.

The images revealed highways connecting cities and mining quarries. They also showed irrigation systems that supported large amounts of agriculture. Masses of workers reshaped the natural spaces around them.

"Moving Mountains" Without Wheels or Animals
The ancient Maya never used wheels or animals to move materials. Yet they were literally "moving mountains," scientist Marcello Canuto said.

People took for granted that complicated societies were not in tropical places, he said. Yet these new images show that Maya society actually began in the tropics.

LiDAR will change how scholars study archaeology for years to come. Scholars will need many years to understand all the data that LiDAR will provide them.

The survey has helped scholars understand cities, nature, and the military in the Maya Lowlands. Maya society was at its largest and strongest 1,100 to 1,800 years ago. At that time, it covered an area twice the size of England. The Maya also lived much closer together than people in England.

In the past, scholars thought there were five million people living in Maya society. New data shows there may have been 10 million to 15 million people.

Maya cities were connected by wide roadways. These highways allowed for heavy traffic and trade. As cities often saw too much or little rain, the flow of water was controlled with canals and reservoirs. Highways were elevated to allow for easy travel even during rainy seasons.

Scientists found many walls, ramparts and terraces. These buildings show that wars happened as Maya society expanded.

Modern-Day Looters Harm Environment
The survey also revealed thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters. "Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters," said Marianne Hernandez, president of the PACUNAM Foundation.

Harming the environment is another concern. Guatemala loses more than 10 percent of its forests each year. Loss of natural areas is increasing along its border with Mexico. Trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human cities.

Identifying ruins will help convince people to protect these places.

The survey is part of a three-year project. During those three years, 14,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) of Guatemala's lowlands will be mapped. That is double the size of Delaware, a state in the United States. Extending north to Mexico, the lowlands were an important part of pre-Columbian cities.

"The effect of this project is just incredible," scientist Kathryn Reese-Taylor said. People had looked through these tropical forests for years but never found these ruins before. These images will help scholars understand the people and culture of Maya society.

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Last Updated

April 19, 2024

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