In a major archaeological breakthrough, researchers have found more than 60,000 hidden Maya ruins in Guatemala. Laser technology revealed houses, palaces, elevated highways, and defensive fortifications beneath the forest canopy. The discovery could change what we know about the Mayan civilization.
It is now believed that Central America supported an advanced civilization on par with the sophisticated cultures of ancient Greece or China. The sprawling pre-Columbian civilization was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
Most of the 60,000 structures found are thought to be stone platforms that would have supported the average Maya home. However, one of the new discoveries is a seven-story pyramid covered in vegetation. Another discovery was a complex network of raised highways linking all the Maya cities in the area.
Complex irrigation and terracing systems were also found. The flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs. This is an impressive feat for a civilization that is assumed to have never used the wheel or beasts of burden.
The researchers were using LiDAR technology, which is short for “light detection and ranging.” LiDAR technology uses laser light to densely sample the surface of the earth. The highly accurate measurements from millions of laser pulses are used to produce a detailed three-dimensional image of the ground surface topography. LiDAR technology has also been used in recent years to reveal hidden cities in Cambodia near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat.
The LiDAR survey in Guatemala was the first part of a three-year project led by a cultural heritage preservation organization called the PACUNAM Foundation. The project has produced the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research. The researchers mapped over 810 square miles in the Petén region of Guatemala using the technology.
Stephen Houston, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Brown University, called the magnitude of the recent survey “breathtaking” and said that the images produced “did bring tears to my eyes.” Some researchers now believe that the scale and population density of the Mayan civilization have been grossly underestimated. They say that the cities could be three or four times bigger than previously thought. The new discovery is near already-known Maya cities.