Scientists Were Exploring A Jungle When They Found A Vast Maya Settlement Hidden Beneath The Canopy

The settlement was mysteriously abandoned. Engulfed by swathes of tropical foliage, it went undetected for more than a thousand years. Then, in 2018, a revolutionary new technology revealed the hidden landscape in phenomenal detail. Pyramids, temples and other man-made structures sprawled for miles through the rainforest – all of them testament to human ingenuity.

The world’s jungles are, of course, laden with mysteries. In the Amazon rainforest, the “Boiling River” bubbles away at temperatures of over 200°F at times, cooking everything it touches. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, giant stone balls lie hidden in the vegetation – their makers and function unknown. And throughout South America, ape-like entities called Maricoxi – something like tropical Bigfoots – are said to inhabit heavily wooded areas.

But in the tangled tropical forests of Petén in northern Guatemala, remnants left by Maya peoples have long drawn adventurers and archaeologists to well-traveled sites such as Tikal. And although Maya civilization is already known to have been extensive and advanced, the findings of one recent study suggest that new wonders are yet to be discovered.

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Commencing around 2000 BC, the Maya civilization lasted for more than three thousand years and covered areas of present-day southern Mexico and Central America. In the jungles of Petén, moreover, Maya settlements are thought to have reached their cultural apogee during the so-called Classic Period from 250 AD to 900 AD. Astronomy, mathematics, architecture, writing, sculpture and art were all practiced during the Classic era before an unknown crisis caused the Maya to abandon their jungle cities and migrate.

Efforts to uncover Petén’s mysteries are now being led by Dr Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist from New York’s Ithaca College. Garrison, who works with international researchers at various sites in Guatemala, is building up a regional picture of how Maya civilization evolved chronologically, and he is an expert in the use of digital technologies in an archaeological setting.

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Serving as an adviser for the Guatemalan non-profit PACUNAM – an organization promoting cultural heritage, research and sustainable development in Guatemala – Garrison helped to document the Petén region using an innovative new technology called Light Detection And Ranging, or LiDAR. In fact, the research funded by PACUNAM constitutes the largest ever LiDAR archeological data set.

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Speaking to National Geographic magazine in 2018, Kathryn Reese-Taylor from the University of Calgary hailed the project as groundbreaking. “After decades of combing through forests, no archaeologists had stumbled on these sites,” she said. “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.”

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But how does LiDAR technology work? Well, specifically, it uses lasers deployed by aircraft in order to measure hidden topography. The lasers fire millions of pulses at the ground every four seconds; their reflected wavelengths are then measured to provide raw data about the terrain. In some ways, LiDAR is like the sonar capabilities of bats.

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And the PACUNAM-funded project used LiDAR to survey more than 800 square miles in Petén’s Maya Biosphere Reserve – a protected area known to contain several sizeable archaeological sites. Furthermore, the data gathered has given the researchers a detailed and unobstructed look at the landscape beneath the trees; essentially, it has produced something of a 3D map of the area.

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Intriguingly, that map has now revealed more than 60,000 hidden structures across multiple settlements, suggesting that Maya civilization was far more complex – and extensive – than previously thought. In fact, the findings hint that the ancient Maya were probably as sophisticated as inhabitants of ancient China and Greece. “Everything is turned on its head,” Garrison told the BBC in February 2018.

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In addition, according to Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist from Tulane University, the region may have been home to two or three times more people than previously believed. “Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around five million,” he told National Geographic. “With this new data, it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were ten to 15 million people there – including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

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The findings also revealed a nexus of causeways running between the settlements, suggesting that the ancient Maya utilized an extensive trade network. The causeways were sufficiently wide to permit traffic and were raised – possibly to avoid the worst effects of wet seasons. More generally, a profusion of reservoirs, canals and other engineered structures appeared to demonstrate intelligent adaptation to the tropical environment.

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And the data suggests that agriculture was practiced more intensively than previously supposed, too. The Maya are thought to have utilized sophisticated farming methods such as terracing and irrigation to feed their population; food staples probably included maize and a plethora of tropical fruit such as guavas and papayas.

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The widespread discovery of defensive structures such as walls and fortresses also suggest that warfare was a far more pervasive facet of Maya life than first thought. “Warfare wasn’t only happening toward the end of the civilization,” Garrison explained to National Geographic. “It was large-scale and systematic, and it endured over many years.”

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Meanwhile, according to Marcello Canuto from Tulane University, these new findings challenge historical prejudices about the tropics. “We’ve had this Western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” he told National Geographic. “We now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

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And, interestingly, the data produced has been used by National Geographic to develop visually arresting augmented reality software. Demonstrated in the 2018 documentary Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings, the software allows users to see hidden structures in their surroundings by simply pointing a tablet or smartphone in their direction. In one scene, for example, explorer Albert Lin uses his device to reveal that a mound is actually a pyramid.

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There is, however, a significant snag with the LiDAR data: it compresses 3,000 years of historical development into a single image. Yet while figuring out a timeline for the structures within that image may be a major test, it’s nonetheless a test that Garrison happily accepts. “It’s a great problem to have… because it gives us new challenges as we learn more about the Maya,” he told the BBC.

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Furthermore, it is hoped that the LiDAR data will help to raise public awareness of Petén’s immense historical value and, in turn, secure its protection for future generations. Many of the detected sites have already been looted; more generally, the whole region is also threatened by deforestation and uncontrolled slash-and-burn agriculture.

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But, according to Estrada-Belli, archaeology is undergoing profound changes thanks to LiDAR. “LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” he explained to National Geographic. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

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Indeed, this appears to be only the beginning, as the data gathered so far represents the first phase in a three-year initiative. Ultimately, it is hoped that the project will survey over 5,000 square miles. And according to Stephen Houston, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Brown University, the venture is a game-changer. “I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology,” he told the BBC.

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