An international team of researchers have identified tens of thousands of previously unknown Mayan structures using a high-tech aerial mapping technology known as Lidar. Discovered in the jungles of Guatemala, the ancient structures include homes, pyramids, defense installations, large-scale agricultural fields, and irrigation canals, suggesting that up to 10 million people lived in the area at its peak. “That is two to three times more [inhabitants] than people were saying there were,” Marcello A Canuto, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, told The Guardian. Those that did live there clearly altered the landscape far more dramatically than previously thought.
The research team, which includes scientists from the United States, Europe, and Guatemala working in collaboration with Guatemala’s Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation, used Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, to virtually cut through the thick jungle. Lidar works by bouncing pulsed laser light off of the ground to unveil contours otherwise hidden. In addition to its use in archaeology, lidar also serves to assist the control and navigation of self-driving cars. Further areas of lidar application include seismology, laser guidance, and atmospheric physics.
The recent discoveries in the Peten region of Guatemala have shown that in some areas of the now-thick jungle, up to 95 percent of land was used for agriculture. “Their agriculture is much more intensive and therefore sustainable than we thought, and they were cultivating every inch of the land,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, research assistant professor at Tulane University, told The Guardian. To do so, the Mayans drained swampland that even today is considered unfit for farming. The large scale of the projects demonstrates the coordinated effort required to complete them. “There’s state involvement here, because we see large canals being dug that are re-directing natural water flows,” Thomas Garrison, assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College in New York, told The Guardian. Despite the discovery’s massive size, it would have likely remained unknown without Lidar technology. “I found [an ancient road],” explained Garrison, “but if I had not had the Lidar and known that that’s what it was, I would have walked right over it, because of how dense the jungle is.”
Via The Guardian