Lasers Unearth Maya Cities in Guatemala Forest

By raining laser pulses on over 770 sq. miles of forest in the northern most area of Guatemala, archaeologists discovered approximately 60,000 structures built by the Maya that together create sprawling cities.

The new laser technology provides archaeologists with views never before seen into how the Maya civilization worked by revealing agricultural infrastructure as well as giving never before seen insights into the warfare of the Maya.

Ithaca College archaeologist Thomas Garrison called the discovery “a game changer.” Garrison is one of the project’s leaders and said that it changes base level for which Maya archaeology is done.

The new data reveals the area was as much as four times more densely populated than was originally thought, which would equate to a conservative estimate of millions of people and likely that would be over 10 million people.

Researchers fired Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology down on the dense forest using an airplane. The organizer of the research is PACUNAM LiDar initiative. Garrison says that the entire area size is now more than double that of any other existing survey that has been completed with the technology.

Garrison explained that as the plane flies hundreds of thousands of laser pulses per second are shot and every time one of the laser pulses hits a resistance point it stops and will send back a measurement to the aircraft.

Some pulses reach as far down as the floor of the dense forest. The data is used afterwards to visually strip the trees and plants away, and ultimately mapping out only structures that the jungle has hidden.

LiDAR gives scientists the ability to accomplish years and even decades of mapping in just one afternoon. Garrison added that he was on the team that worked almost eight years mapping out less than one square mile at El Zotz. The plane with LiDAR was able to gather data from 67 square miles in just a few hours.

He called it humbling for the people who spent their lives mapping the area and accept that LiDAR is better.

Ten different areas were surveyed by the team followed by months of processing the data. As things become clearer, Garrison would send out emails to colleagues expressing his surprise of the size. The data collected has allowed them to weave together individual cities and the enormous support network for them.

For example, archaeologists knew the Maya used agricultural field, but the new data shows enormous expanses of irrigated fields in low lying swamps.

And it was common knowledge the Maya often fought with one another but the new data shows fortresses and systems with interconnected watchtowers.

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