Major Mayan Discovery Changes What We Know
A team of archeologists successfully used the LiDAR technology to unearth what they believe could completely change the way we look at Mayan culture forever.
Legends? Not Anymore
Without a doubt, the Maya is one of the most enigmatic civilizations the world has ever seen. Throughout South and Central America, the Mayan Empire was the dominant force in the region, which is now the majority of today’s Yucatan Peninsula. 1,000 B.C. was when the first Mayan cities were built. It was then in 900 A.D. when the civilization reached its mysterious ending. What exactly was it that brought this Empire to a seemingly instant demise? New answers may have arrived…
Fought To Survive
The Mayan people had already established themselves as a powerful force to be reckoned with over 1,000 years before they built their first cities. One idea surrounding these people is the number of wars and battles they needed to endure in order to survive. One of the main explanations for the end of the Mayan civilization was the many neighbors who caused their numbers to shrink with time. In fact, it was the Spanish who took over the last known Mayan city in 1697.
Architects Of Their Own Destruction
For thousands of years, the Mayan people were believed to be some of the most impressive architects in human history. Years since their civilization came to an end, archeologists have found many Central American stone structures that have extremely complex designs. These structures are believed to have been made for a variety of purposes such as palaces, pyramids and even courtyards for sports events. While many of the structures still stand, where are all the others?
Power In Small Numbers
An empire is usually expected to consist of a large population. However, this simply wasn’t the case as far as the Mayan people were concerned. They may have been responsible for some of the most impressive structures of the ancient era, but archeologists believe that the Mayan population was a relatively small number. It is generally agreed upon that there was only between 1 million and 2 million Mayans. This is simply because the landscape couldn’t accommodate for so many people.
Despite the many discoveries that archeologists have made over the years, they are only pieces of a large Mayan puzzle that is far from complete. Like most cases, time seems to be the greatest enemy standing in the way of archeologists who simply want to unearth the truth about the Mayan civilization. Due to the jungle that has grown in place of where the empire once stood, air surveys are virtually impossible to give detailed indications of what lies beneath…
More Than Meets The Eye
For years, archeologists have literally scratched the surface of Mayan history. Until recent times, they have only drawn conclusions from the amazing structures that were constructed by the Mayans over time. Of course, the researchers of yesteryear didn’t have the technology that we have in the present day. Many have speculated that there is so much more to discover that is buried beneath the Yutacan jungle. It seems like that time has finally arrived…
It’s not just exterior forces that recognize the importance of this investigation. The technology that has been used to make these new discoveries (which will soon be revealed) is the first part of a project that is scheduled to last three years in total. It is arranged by an organization based in Guatemala, Pacunam, which aims to promote the preservation of its cultural heritage. By the end of the project, it would have covered over 5,000 square miles of Guatemala alone.
More Than You See
One of the long game aims for PACUNAM is to ensure the preservation of all the sites that the project uncovers. Archeologists have discovered many pits that looters have caused over the years. “Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters,” PACUNAM president Marianne Hernandez said. Pair that with the fact that people are cutting down 10 percent of Guatemala’s forests per year, PACUNAM has more than enough reasons to protect it.
It seems like the classic archeological method of digging is about to be eclipsed by an incredible piece of technology. Scientists have created something that is able to penetrate through layers of trees and earth to find what is stored beneath the surface. The scientists in question have given their new technology the name LiDAR, which is an acronym for Light Imaging Detection and Ranging. But what exactly does LiDAR do that is reported to have changed the face of archeology as we know it?
A clue to working out LiDAR’s actual purpose is in its name. It is essentially a type of radar that is fitted onto a piece of aircraft. When the said aircraft flies over its desired location, the radar shoots “laser pulses hundreds of thousands of times per second,” said Ithaca College archeologist Thomas Garrison. “And every time one of those lasers hits a point of resistance, it stops and sends back a measurement to the plane.”
Mapping The Jungle
The magical moment happens when the data that is collected is able to be transformed into a 3D map of the original landscape that once stood. Pulses are sent to the forest floor which determines what the actual landscape is without all of the jungle features. It’s almost as if every single tree was cropped out of the map to inform the researchers what the area would have looked like beforehand. But how was it used in Guatemala?
Using LiDAR In The Jungle
Naturally, the researchers took their awesome LiDAR technology and used it on the thick forest region of northern Guatemala. This part of the world provided over 770 square miles of land that had only be explored a little bit over the last few thousand years. “This is a game changer,” Thomas Garrison said. According to him, it has revolutionized “the base level at which we do Maya archaeology.” Amazingly, there was one standout discovery they made that they had already technically found years before…
The Hidden Fortress
According to Garrison, he and his team had already stepped foot inside a Mayan fortress a few years ago before the LiDAR technology was even a thing. They just didn’t realize it as it was completely unrecognizable. “There was this fortress in our area,” he said. “In 2010, I was within 150 feet of this thing.” The team was completely oblivious to the fortress as the jungle had camouflaged it. However, it wasn’t just the fortress that LiDAR uncovered…
Ready For War
One thing that struck the archeologists about the stunning scans was that there were many walls, moats, and fortresses. This heavily indicated that the Mayans were used to being involved in wars and needed the appropriate infrastructure to defend themselves. Even Thomas Garrison wasn’t aware of how prepared the Mayans were for battle before using the LiDAR technology. However, this was only scratching the surface of the incredible findings that they recently made about the Mayan structures.
Living The High Life
One fascinating detail that the data from the LiDAR technology suggested was that many Mayans actually lived high above the ground on high stone platforms that they had constructed themselves. Mayan specialist Diane Davies is more impressed with the civilization than ever. “To have such a large number of people living at such a high level for such a long period of time, it really proves the fact that these people were highly developed, and also quite environmentally conscientious,” she said.
Thousands Of Structures
The LiDAR was able to reveal at least 60,000 Mayan structures! Not only did it shock the archeologists by the sheer number, it was the intricate nature of the complex that astounded both archeologists and historians alike. Also, the discovery shed a new light on just how advanced the Mayan people were. It suggested that there were many more cities than previously thought and this also meant that the Mayan population was potentially much bigger than previously suspected.
Many More Mayans
Thomas Garrison was able to give a pretty specific estimation of how much greater in numbers he thinks the population might have been. “The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” he said. Based on the findings, Garrison believes that unlike the 1 or 2 million that was previously accepted, that the Mayan population was probably closer to 20 million. However, there’s a good reason for this…
Probably the main reason that archeologists have changed their thoughts on how large the Mayan population actually was is due to the many structures they discovered. These specific structures have all the signs that point to the idea that the Mayans probably used them for farming. There are clear indications that there were once terracing and irrigation systems. This would suggest that the Mayans had a sophisticated idea of how to provide for their people in large quantities.
Changing Archeology Forever
The findings completely caught archeologists around the world by surprise. They suggest that the Mayans used highways that stretched for hundreds of miles to transport stone to use for their structures. These sophisticated clusters of highway systems were just one of the many things that have helped revolutionize the way that researchers look at the way that civilizations are formed, in general. One man explained just how much the discovery has shaken the world of archeology…
According to Marcello Canuto, an archeologist from Tulane University who took part in the project, the recent findings draw the fine line between engineering marvels and unadulterated miracles. However, the thing that shocked him the most was the strength and determination the Mayan people had to move such heavy objects. “This was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” he said. “We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die.”
Welcome To The Jungle
Canuto’s interpretation of these findings is that the first ancient civilizations may have originated in the jungle. This is also due to the fact that archeologists also used the LiDAR technology on the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, of all places. “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,” Canuto said.
Follow The LiDAR
One thing is for sure: LiDAR is one of the brightest sparks in the future of archeology. Based on what it has already achieved, there is no telling what else it might uncover. It is an exciting prospect for those who invented the technology and have the privilege to use it. The chances are that other jungles around the world might have ancient civilizations buried beneath. Now, archeologists will be able to explore the likes of the Amazon and the Congo Basin.
More Than Just An Archeological Tool
Thomas Garrison is obviously incredibly excited about the prospect that LiDAR has for his job. However, he was quick to reassure people of other industries that the technology will be useful for more than just archeological purposes. In fact, his team only uses a small part of what LiDAR is capable of. “We don’t use about 92% of the LiDAR data. We just throw it out to make our maps,” he said. “But there is incredibly valuable information in that forestry data.”
Saving Forests Around The World
Another benefit that LiDAR technology brings is its meticulous assessment of the conditions of certain forests. Ultimately, this will help the prevention of forest fires, amongst other environmental benefits. “You’re just seeing the archaeology part because that’s what we focused on,” Garrison said. “But that data can be used to determine how jungles recover from forest fires, what’s the carbon footprint.” However, it’s not just Thomas Garrison who has a good reason to be delighted with the findings…
One of the people who has dedicated a large part of their life to unearthing the truth behind the Mayan civilization is Brown University’s Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology Stephen Houston. “I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology” Houston said. The significance of the survey actually made Houston extremely emotional. “I know it sounds hyperbolic but when I saw the [LiDAR] imagery, it did bring me to tears.”
A Long Way To Go
Amazingly, some researchers believe that they will need at least another century to fully process and understand the data that LiDAR has collated since they first used it. “Lidar is revolutionizing archeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” Tulane University archeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli said. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the date] and really understand what we’re seeing.” However, this is not the only issue that LiDAR has presented to its most dedicated users…
According to Thomas Garrison, LiDAR has presented a big problem in regards to Mayan archeology. “The tricky thing about LiDAR is that it gives us an image of 3,000 years of Mayan civilization in the area, compressed,” he said. “It’s a great problem to have though, because it gives us new challenges as we learn more about the Maya.” However, there are many more challenges that will stand in the way of whoever decides to carry on this bottomless pit of possibilities…
The archeologists in question may have made a huge breakthrough, but the mission wasn’t over just yet. In fact, the LiDAR laser technology was just the first stage. Ultimately, engineer Albert Yu-Min Lin and his team had to work their way through the jungles in order to confirm that all the data was accurate. This meant that they had to dodge poisonous snakes, scorpion and killer bees, just to verify everything that LiDAR had just done for them.
Lidar – Step By Step
The following image gives a clear yet simplified depiction of how exactly the Lidar technology works. The main process is pretty much broken down into three steps. Firstly, the lasers are shot from the plane towards the ground. Secondly, the beams reflect from the highest points of the surface, meaning that some beams make it through the gaps between the trees. Finally, the technology can use the beams and translate them into topographic scans. Pretty neat stuff!
Uncovering The Lowlands
One thing that the Lidar technology threatens to do is uncover where exactly the source of the Mayans success actually was. Due to the mapping that the technology has created, there are a number of areas that are larger and more elaborately constructed than others. Tom Garrison believes that this can potentially be found in the lowlands. “These features are so extensive that it makes us start to wonder: is this the breadbasket of the Maya lowlands?” Garrison said.
It should be noted that despite the Mayan Empire coming to an end a long time ago, that doesn’t mean that Mayans don’t exist anymore. In fact, there are many descendants of the ancient people who still live in the region that the kingdom once stood. It is believed that the Mayans account for a staggering 42% of Guatemala’s population of 14.3 million people. In total, there are between 20 and 30 million people who descend from the Mayans, living in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Against All Odds
The kingdom that the Mayans built for themselves is nothing short of a miracle. Take the following into consideration: these people had no livestock, no wheels to help them with transportation, and no tools made out of metal. That’s not all though. The Mayans also lived in pretty dour conditions, full of swamps that were constantly damaged by heavy storms. Despite this, the Mayans were able to persevere for hundreds of years and built this incredible megacity.
Bigger Than England?
To emphasize just how large the Mayan kingdom supposedly was, we can compare the region to modern day places. The civilization was at its very best between 250AD and 900AD. During this time, it is believed that the area in which the Mayans lived would have been two times bigger than medieval England. That’s not all though. Due to the huge population, it would have had a much denser population than that of England. It was bigger in virtually every way.
What Does The Future Hold?
As of now, the future is always in motion and new developments continue to happen. However, as previously said, the Guatemalan organization Pacunam who are working to preserve its country’s cultural heritage are well into their three-year project. It aims to cover a lot of Guatemalan ground. Moreover, put that together with the extremely talented archeologists in charge of LiDAR, it is a matter of time before they discover even more Mayan pyramids and palaces.