Researchers Use LiDAR to Find 60,000 Mayan Ruins Hidden in a Jungle

An international group used LiDAR technology to find over 60,000 new structures in Guatemala belonging to the Maya civilization.
Shelby Rogers

Thanks to LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, it's no longer necessary for researchers to cut through thick jungles to discover new archaeological sites. In fact, the method worked perfectly for researchers with Guatemala's PACUNAM foundation in partnership with a team from Tulane University. They recently reported mapping out dozens of newly discovered Mayan ruins previously shrouded by jungle. 

Researchers Use LiDAR to Find 60,000 Mayan Ruins Hidden in a Jungle
Source: Wild Blue Media/National Geographic

The aerial mapping techniques led to the team finding houses, buildings, defense systems and even pyramids within the El Peten region of Guatemala. In total, the team reported 60,000 structures in just two years of study alone. 

The findings ultimately led the researchers to believe that millions more Mayans existed than previously believed possible. 

According to the team's report, roughly 10 million people lived within what's considered the Mayan Lowlands. 

"That is two to three times more [inhabitants] than people were saying there were," said Marcello A Canuto, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, in an interview with the Guardian. Canuto called the study a "revolution in Maya archeology." 

The Maya civilization is widely regarded as one of the most technologically advanced and powerful ancient civilizations not just in Mesoamerica but, historically, in the world. The culture excelled in farming, poetry, crafting hieroglyphs, and making calendars. (People might recall in 2012 when conspiracy theorists spread the belief that the world would end that year. It was due to their 'interpretations' of the Mayan calendar.) The Mayan people were also incredibly skilled mathematicians. In fact, the Mayans understood the concept of zero centuries before the Europeans did. 

Researchers Use LiDAR to Find 60,000 Mayan Ruins Hidden in a Jungle
Source: Wild Blue Media/National Geographic

What makes them particularly fascinating to archaeologists is their ability to thrive as a civilization in both dry and tropical climates. Most ancient civilizations comparable to the Maya lived in arid climates where water was irrigated and well controlled. However, the southern Maya lowlands -- where the team of researchers found their success -- served as an important way for Maya to create new tools out of the jungle's plentiful natural resources. 

The researchers also think that the large scale of people living within the area meant the Mayans had a much more extensive agricultural system than previously believed. Massive food production would've been needed to sustain that population size, according to research assistant professor at Tulane Francisco Estrada-Belli. 

"Their agriculture is much more intensive and therefore sustainable than we thought, and they were cultivating every inch of the land," he said. In fact, the researchers found that roughly 95 percent of available land was cultivated. 

So how did the team leverage technology to cut through some of the most dense forests in Central America? The system bounced laser light off of the ground and tracked the shapes and contours hidden in the trees. LiDAR sensors measured how long it took for the laser pulse train to hit a surface and return to the source. It then took those distances and determined elevation alongside aerial photography to piece together an image. 


"Now it is no longer necessary to cut through the jungle to see what's under it," said Canuto. 

Thomas Garrison worked as part of the team and serves as an assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College in New York. He said he'd attempted to map as much as he could prior to Lidar but there was only so much he could do. 

"I found it, but if I had not had the Lidar and known that that’s what it was, I would have walked right over it, because of how dense the jungle is," he said, talking about a road revealed by the technology. "The jungle, which has hindered us in our discovery efforts for so long, has actually worked as this great preservative tool of the impact the culture had across the landscape."

Canuto said the team "felt a little sheepish... because these were things we had been walking over all the time."

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