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Archaeologists in Guatemala Discover a Vast Lost Mayan Civilizations with LiDAR
Almost 1,000 Maya settlement with pyramids and ball courts were discovered in a recent investigation, which dates back more than 2,000 years.
According to a recent study1, archaeologists have found the remains of a sizable ancient Maya civilization that lived more than 2,000 years ago in northern Guatemala. Nearly 1,000 settlements made up this long-forgotten urban web, which covered 650 square miles and was connected by a vast network of causeways that was discovered using airborne laser equipment called LiDAR.
The study was published this month in the journal Cambridge Core and the results challenged the conventional wisdom of sparse early human occupation in this area during the "Preclassical" period spanning 1,000 BC to 150 AD by revealing a remarkable density of Maya sites in Guatemala's Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB). This makes it one of the largest contiguous regional LiDAR investigations in the Maya Lowlands, which includes parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, published to date.
The researchers noted that the LiDAR survey revealed a remarkable distribution and density of Maya sites concentrated in the MCKB, many of which were connected directly or indirectly by a vast causeway network that includes 110 miles of raised roads. They also noted that the sprawling civilization hints at labor investments that defy the organizational capabilities of lesser polities and may represent the Preclassic period's governance strategies.
LiDAR is a form of remote sensing that uses lasers to bounce off of objects to create detailed maps depending on how long it takes for the pulses to return to a receiver. Because it can uncover evidence of ancient human activity that may be hidden by thick vegetation—a issue that Maya scholars frequently face—or is otherwise invisible to traditional fieldwork on the ground, this technology has revolutionized archaeology.
In order to look for buried signs of ancient communities, the researchers spent years flying airborne LiDAR sensors over the MCKB at an altitude of roughly 2,000 feet. To their surprise, the investigation unearthed dense clusters of brand-new, previously undiscovered contemporaneous sites, including enormous platform and pyramid complexes that point to the existence of a centralized and advanced civilization. Numerous ballcourts for Mesoamerican games as well as a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs for managing water are included in these projects.
The team also looked at the 230-foot-tall Danta pyramid, which was once the heart of multiple causeways and a popular tourist destination in the Maya capital of El Mirador. The entire building may have required 6,000,000 to 10,000,000 person-days of labor, depending on the natural configurations of the bedrock beneath the structure. This amount of labor exceeds the capacity of polities with lower hierarchical political and economic status, and suggests a high level of organization as the sociopolitical and economic patron of such prodigious growth.
The astounding new find provides insight into the people who inhabited the thriving civilizations of this forested region for more than a thousand years. The research team anticipates that further study will help them learn more about this ancient culture and potentially unearth previously undiscovered settlements.
Hansen, R., Morales-Aguilar, C., Thompson, J., Ensley, R., Hernández, E., Schreiner, T., . . . Martínez, G. (2022). LiDAR analyses in the contiguous Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin, Guatemala: An introduction to new perspectives on regional early Maya socioeconomic and political organization. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1-40. doi:10.1017/S0956536122000244