2,000-year-old Mayan civilization discovered in the north of Guatemala

Researchers used LiDAR rather than radar.
Nergis Firtina
Ancient Mayan drawings carved on the stone wall.
Ancient Mayan drawings carved on the stone wall.

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A team of researchers from numerous institutions in the United States, along with colleagues from France and Guatemala, found a massive 2,000-year-old Mayan civilization in northern Guatemala. The group made the discovery by using LiDAR.

Similar to radar, LiDAR is a detection system based on laser light rather than radio waves. Researchers decided to use it because LiDAR can penetrate rainforests and reveal what is underneath them.

Their findings were published in Ancient Mesoamerica on December 5.

As stated in the release, the researchers were mapping some of Guatemala when they stumbled across what they describe as a massive ancient Maya civilization. They determined from their maps that the prehistoric civilization consisted of more than 1,000 towns spread across an area of around 650 square miles, the majority of which were connected by numerous causeways. Another finding that contradicts notions that early Mesoamerican settlements tended to be sparsely populated is that the individuals who formerly resided in the settlements had been closely clustered.

2,000-year-old Mayan civilization discovered in the north of Guatemala
LiDAR image showing triadic structures in the civic center of El Mirador.

Causeways for visiting other settlements

There were 110 miles of navigable causeways (cleared, raised beds used as highways), which made it relatively simple for residents of the civilization to travel to neighboring communities.

Large platforms and pyramids were also seen in several of the communities, which the experts say suggests that some of them served as centralized hubs for politics, work, and entertainment. Additionally, they mention that some of the settlements had ball courts that were used for various regional games, according to an earlier study. The researchers also discovered that the inhabitants of the civilization had constructed reservoirs and canals to move and store water for usage during dry spells.

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More about Ancient Mayans

According to Britannica, The Mayans lived in villages and engaged in agriculture as early as 1500 BCE. Between 250 and 900 CE, Mayan culture had its Classic Period. The Mayan civilization had more than 40 cities at its peak, each with a population of 5,000–50,000 people. Metropolis in the Yucatán Peninsula flourished for several centuries after the large cities of lowland Guatemala had become depopulated during the Post-Classic Period (900–1519).

From Chiapas and Yucatán, which are now in southern Mexico, to Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, the Mayans dominated a large portion of the northwest of Central America. The same location is still home to Maya people today. More than five million individuals spoke around 30 Mayan languages at the beginning of the twenty-first century, most of whom were Spanish-bilingual.

Study abstract:

LiDAR coverage of a large contiguous area within the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB) of northern Guatemala has identified a concentration of Preclassic Maya sites (ca. 1000 B.C.–A.D. 150) connected by causeways, forming a web of implied social, political, and economic interactions. This article is an introduction to one of the largest, contiguous, regional LiDAR studies published to date in the Maya Lowlands. More than 775 ancient Maya settlements are identified within the MCKB, and 189 more in the surrounding karstic ridge, which we condensed into 417 ancient cities, towns, and villages of at least six preliminary tiers based on surface area, volumetrics, and architectural configurations. Many tiered sites date to the Middle and Late Preclassic periods, as determined by archaeological testing, and volumetrics of contemporaneously constructed and/or occupied architecture with similar morphological characteristics. Monumental architecture, consistent architectural formats, specific site boundaries, water management/collection facilities, and 177 km of elevated Preclassic causeways suggest labor investments that defy organizational capabilities of lesser polities and potentially portray the strategies of governance in the Preclassic period. Settlement distributions, architectural continuities, chronological contemporaneity, and volumetric considerations of sites provide evidence for early centralized administrative and socio-economic strategies within a defined geographical region.