1. GUATEMALA CITY (AFP).- Experts using an aerial high-tech laser scanner have discovered thousands of ancient Maya structures hidden under the thick jungle of northern Guatemala, officials said Thursday.
Some 60,000 structures were found over the past two years in a scan of a region in the northern department of El Peten, which borders Mexico and Belize, said Marcello Canuto, one of the project's top investigators.
These findings are a "revolution in Maya archeology," Canuto said.
The new discoveries in this Central American country include urban centers with sidewalks, homes, terraces, ceremonial centers, irrigation canals and fortifications, said Canuto, an archaeologist at Tulane University in the United States.
Among the finds was a 30-meter high pyramid that had been earlier identified as a natural hill in Tikal, Guatemala's premier archaeological site. Also discovered in Tikal: a series of pits and a 14 kilometer-long wall.
The Maya civilization reached its height in what is present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Belize, El Salvador and Honduras between 250 and 950 CE.
Researchers now believe that the Maya had a population of 10 million, which is "much higher" than previous estimates, Canuto said.
The project relied on a remote sensing method known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Aircraft with a LiDAR scanner produced three-dimensional maps of the surface by using light in the form of pulsed laser linked to a GPS system.
The technology helped researchers discover sites much faster than using traditional archeological methods.
"Now it is no longer necessary to cut through the jungle to see what's under it," said Canuto.
Details of the research will appear in a documentary to air on February 11 on the National Geographic channel, said Minister of Culture and Sports Jose Luis Chea.
2. Guatemala City - Advanced laser mapping has revealed more than 60,000 ancient Mayan structures beneath the jungles of northern Guatemala.
Set across dozens of hidden cities, the discoveries include houses, palaces and a 90-foot-tall pyramid that was previously thought to be a hill.
Made possible through special laser-equipped airplanes that can "see" through dense jungle, the groundbreaking research suggests that Mayan metropolises were far larger and more complex than previously thought.
Evidence of agriculture, irrigation, quarries and defensive fortifications were widespread, and extensive road networks point to initially unknown levels of interconnectivity between settlements.
Laser finds thousands of lost Mayan structures
The extent of the findings, first reported by National Geographic, may transform our understanding of how Mesoamerican civilization operated, according to one of the study's co-directors, Marcello Canuto from Tulane University in New Orleans.
"We're discovering that there is more of everything, and the scale is much bigger," he said in a phone interview. "In any given area there were more structures, more buildings, more canals and more terraces (than expected).'"
By extrapolating data from the 2,100-square-kilometer (811-square-mile) site, researchers have also revised their population estimates for the region. They now believe that 10 million people lived in the Maya Lowlands (an area covering parts of present-day Guatetmala and Mexico), a number that is "many times larger" than indicated by previous research.
"The general conceit over the last 100 years has been that the tropics were a bad place to have civilizations and that (the climate) is not conducive to sustaining complex societies," said Canuto, who has worked on Mayan archeology for more than 30 years. "There has always been this assumption that Mayan society was less populated and that there wasn't any infrastructure -- that they were small, independent city-states without much interaction.
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"But we're finding that this just isn't true. This research shows that, not only were there lots of people, but also lots of ways that they modified the landscape to render it more productive. The defensive structures that we're finding (also suggest) that there were lots of people and lots of resources, which can create lots of competition."
'Revolutionary' aerial mapping
Central America's thick jungle has often made large-scale surveys of historical sites logistically difficult. But recent developments in a technique known as light detection and ranging (or "lidar") are allowing archeologists to see through even dense forest.
The aerial mapping process is carried out by attaching a lidar sensor to the underside of an airplane. Using the same technology found in self-driving cars, the instrument maps the landscape by emitting pulses of laser light and the time taken for them to return.
The resulting data can reveal ground-level contours, pointing researchers toward man-made structures beneath the canopy. For archeologists, the method allows surveys of great detail and unprecedented size, Canuto said.
"This initiative is bigger than anything that has ever been done before. But it's not just big, it's also covering a wide swathe of this area, so it's actually a representative sample.
"For (archeologists) who work in the tropics, this is entirely revolutionizing the way we do everything," he added. "It's as if you were observing the sun and the stars with your naked eye and then someone invents the telescope."
Potential for archeology
Lidar sensors have previously been used to study other Mesoamerican settlements in Belize, as well as temple complexes in Cambodia. The technology may have archeological potential in other tropical areas, such as the Amazon and central Africa.
For now, the method's greatest barrier is the cost of chartering aircraft, Canuto said. His project was only made possible through funding from the Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (PACUNAM), a Guatemalan non-profit organization that brought together a consortium of archeologists with different areas of expertise.
But as well as making research economically viable, this type of collaboration may provide new insight into the large datasets created.
"Now we're not limited to one site -- we can see everyone's data," Canuto said. "So instead of having 10 scholars working on 10 individual sites, we had 10 scholars working on individual questions across all the sites. That gives you a regional perspective that no one else has."
Advanced laser techniques have revealed more than 60,000 ancient Mayan structures beneath the jungles of northern Guatemala. Credit: PACUNAM/Canuto & Auld-Thomas
Moreover, if archeologists collaborate with experts in other fields, such as ecology and environmental science, aerial mapping may become more cost-effective and widely used.
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"The data we use shows what's on the ground... but the other 95 percent of the data is providing a vertical profile of the canopy," Canuto said. "We, as archaeologists, want to know what's under there when you remove the trees. But ecologists want to see biomass and other things that archeologists don't care about."
The digital maps will later be used to carry out targeted ground research. Over the next three years, Canuto and his team hope to scan the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve, an 8,341-square-mile site in Guatemala's Petén region.
3. Guatemala City - Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.
Watch a preview for "Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings."
National Geographic Channel
Garrison is part of a consortium of researchers who are participating in the project, which was spearheaded by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation.
The project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.
MAPPING THE MAYA WORLD
Researchers using aerial lidar sensing equipment targeted 10 parcels within Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. Their discoveries are revealing previously unknown areas of Maya cities.
The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.
In addition to hundreds of previously unknown structures, the LiDAR images show raised highways connecting urban centers and quarries. Complex irrigation and terracing systems supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers who dramatically reshaped the landscape.
The ancient Maya never used the wheel or beasts of burden, yet “this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who participated in the project.
“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” said Canuto, who conducts archaeological research at a Guatemalan site known as La Corona. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”
“LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”
Already, though, the survey has yielded surprising insights into settlement patterns, inter-urban connectivity, and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At its peak in the Maya classic period (approximately A.D. 250–900), the civilization covered an area about twice the size of medieval England, but it was far more densely populated.
The unaided eye sees only jungle and an overgrown mound, but LiDAR and augmented reality software reveal an ancient Maya pyramid.
Courtesy Wild Blue Media/National Geographic
“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,” said Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary 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.”
Virtually all the Mayan cities were connected by causeways wide enough to suggest that they were heavily trafficked and used for trade and other forms of regional interaction. These highways were elevated to allow easy passage even during rainy seasons. In a part of the world where there is usually too much or too little precipitation, the flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.
Among the most surprising findings was the ubiquity of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” said Garrison. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”
Laser scans revealed more than 60,000 previously unknown Maya structures that were part of a vast network of cities, fortifications, farms, and highways.
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. (Read "Losing Maya Heritage to Looters.")
Environmental degradation is another concern. Guatemala is losing more than 10 percent of its forests annually, and habitat loss has accelerated along its border with Mexico as trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human settlement.
“By identifying these sites and helping to understand who these ancient people were, we hope to raise awareness of the value of protecting these places,” Hernandez said.
The survey is the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a three-year project that will eventually map more than 5,000 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of Guatemala’s lowlands, part of a pre-Columbian settlement system that extended north to the Gulf of Mexico.
Hidden deep in the jungle, the newly-discovered pyramid rises some seven stories high but is nearly invisible to the naked eye.
“The ambition and the impact of this project is just incredible,” said Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a University of Calgary archaeologist and Maya specialist who was not associated with the PACUNAM survey. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. More importantly, we never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”