Laser Tech Reveals A Sprawling Ancient Maya Mega-City

Through the power of LiDAR technology, archaeologists have discovered a sprawling ancient Mayan metropolis hiding in the thick jungles of northern Guatemala.

A National Geographic exclusive has detailed the new discovery of this vast pre-Columbian settlement, carried out by a team of international archaeologists led by the PACUNAM Foundation – a Guatemalan science nonprofit group.

Among their finds were the ruins of at least 60,000 houses, palaces, defensive walls, causeways, and highways. It even revealed that a vast mound of earth, previously believed to be a hill, was actually a 30-meter (100-foot) pyramid structure. Previous estimates said the area was probably home to 5 million people, now that figure is looking closer to 15 million.

The lost city was discovered via a survey of 2,100 square kilometers (810 square miles) of the Peten jungle. The ground-penetrating laser technology, called LiDAR, is relatively new and uses pulsed laser light to look beyond the canopy of trees to see if there are any scattered ruins beneath. Their investigation gathered so much data that it could take decades to fully study it, but the researchers are already preparing to fish for more. Over the coming three years, the same team hopes to survey 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of the Guatemalan jungle.

“Lidar is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist, told National Geographic. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

Most Maya civilizations were crumbling by 900 CE, but at its prime around 1,200 years ago, this culture thrived across Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Although perhaps most famous for their bloody traditions, the Maya were fascinated with astronomy, produced incredible architecture, and created an advanced writing system. Strangely, historians still can’t agree on what caused the collapse of this grand civilization. Regardless, this new discovery undoubtedly reinforces that the Maya civilization was one of the most stunning cultures the world has ever seen.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” added Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, 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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