Discovering Lost Maya Kingdoms

January 20, 2023
Nick

In the News

“Lost Maya kingdom discovered” is a common title for news. While such news doesn’t pop up all the time, it does seem that such discoveries are reported quite frequently nowadays. When looking at such titles, it's easy to ask yourself how such new discoveries are made. In looking at the article, you may find yourself questioning how such massive structures, cities, and kingdoms are even lost in the first place. 

In the last decade or so, more and more researchers are utilizing a new method of detection, called LiDAR. It is this method that has allowed for so many new discoveries about the ancient Maya and in turn, has led to archaeologists needing to change so much of what they thought they knew about the past of Mesoamerica.

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Traditional view of Tikal vs. LiDAR map - from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-42916261

What is LiDAR?

LiDAR is an acronym, that stands for “light detection and ranging” or “laser imaging, detection, and ranging”. It is a method of long-range detection, used to ‘scan’ the landscapes and detect changes in the surface. One of the largest benefits of LiDAR is that it can map the changes in the shape of the land beneath dense vegetation. Being blinded by thick grasses or forests has long been an issue for archaeologists doing surveys on the ground.

Generally, the use of LiDAR for archaeology is done from a low-flying airplane or drone. Inside the plane is the LiDAR device, which shoots out a kind of laser to the ground below. Once those lasers hit the ground, they ‘bounce’ back to the device in the plane after they hit areas/things of resistance (such as large rock formations, trees, or structures). Depending on what the lasers have hit, it creates information for different elevations and details of what is underneath the surface. In doing so, that data can then be used to create a 3D map of the landscape below.

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While used in many different industries, let’s focus on its use in Maya archaeology. For archaeology, LiDAR feels like a natural next step in long-range detection or any kind of detection or survey that is not done by researchers directly on the ground. While satellite images have been, and still are very helpful for archaeologists, LiDAR has created a near-revolutionary step in our understanding of the ancient Maya.

LiDAR use in the Maya world

LiDAR based map of a Maya city - from https://www.esri.com/about/newsroom/blog/lidar-images-reveal-mayan-civilization/

At the start of the new millennium, the rapid developments, and improvements in Geospatial technology, such as GPS and Google Earth, allowed for the first truly high-resolution images of the earth. Such images were used by archaeologists studying the Maya to see elements of ancient cities that they had missed before, such as now seeing evidence of Maya house mounds on the landscape. But, as useful as these images were, they still were limited by their 2D nature.

The first large-scale application of LiDAR in Maya research was conducted in 2009 at the ancient site of Caracol in Belize. The LiDAR used created a more than 200km2 digital elevation model (3D map) that showed that the city held many more buildings, roads, and other Maya-made constructions than previously believed. The four days of LiDAR scanning revealed more structures than the previous 25 years’ worth of research had uncovered. 

Since the first resounding success of LiDAR, the technology has been used extensively in Maya archaeology. There have been massive projects undertaken by numerous groups, including the Guatemalan government and National Geographic, who then created a docuseries on the discoveries. Each time LiDAR has been used, it has revealed more structures and buildings on the landscape than previously believed, which in turn has resulted in archaeologists needing to drastically change their ideas on the Ancient Maya. 

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Lost Maya Kingdoms 

It seems that nearly every time researchers use LiDAR, it is followed by the news of the discovery of lost Maya kingdoms or civilizations. For example, when archaeologists used LiDAR around the site of El Palmar, near Tikal in Guatemala, they found more than 1000 distinct mounds (representing structures) on the landscape. Previously, archaeologists had thought that there had only been 60. 

How is that possible? How can so many structures, whether they be grand pyramids, commoner houses, or roads be lost? The answer comes down to just how fast the jungle grows in Mesoamerica. Because of the climate and the kinds of plants present, the vegetation of a jungle grows up to 14 feet in a single year. So, when you have an ancient infrastructure that was abandoned, it doesn’t take long for the jungle to start reclaiming it.

New undergrowth starts first, but then large trees start forming a new near-solid canopy. And most trees and shrubs that grow in Mesoamerica are evergreen deciduous, meaning that they grow and drop leaves all year long. This, along with animal activity, quickly forms new soil levels which bury the evidence of human activity. It creates such a blanketing effect that you could be standing in the middle of an Ancient Maya city and you’d never know.

Why is LiDAR important for the Maya?

LiDAR can see through the canopy of even the densest forest. The lasers sent to the surface record the tops of the trees, but they also record the changes in the land beneath the canopy. And even buried under potentially several feet or meters of soil, human-made constructions leave an imprint on the earth's surface. They do this by creating different elevations which the lasers detect and then are used to create a 3D topographic model. From there, archaeologists use those maps to see things that they never could from the earth’s surface, or even from satellite images. 

Normal view of the canopy surface vs. what LiDAR can detect - from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/02/582664327/game-changer-maya-cities-unearthed-in-guatemala-forest-using-lasers

Because archaeologists can now see that settlement and construction were much denser and often time more heavily concentrated than previously believed, it has also changed how they view the Ancient Maya. While the old idea that Maya cities were empty ceremonial centres has long been dismissed, it wasn’t until LiDAR that they realized just how much the May built up and modified their world. 

This leads archaeologists to question assumptions about the populations of the Maya and understand that they must have been higher than thought. In turn, then questions are needed to be asked about how the Maya fed such dense populations. This is especially important as it has long been assumed that such tropical jungle climates as found in Mesoamerica can not produce large quantities of food. But, obviously, they did, or the massive cities and the populations that would have lived there would not have survived.

Such questions have relevance to us today. After all, if the Ancient Maya did it, can we? What other lessons from the past can we use to face the problems of today? 

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