Home Science LiDAR Technology Makes Massive Discovery of Mayan Cities in Guatemala

LiDAR Technology Makes Massive Discovery of Mayan Cities in Guatemala

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A LiDAR image from Tikal, the most important Maya city. PACUNAM/Marcello Canuto & Luke Auld-Thomas

LiDAR technology (aka “Light Detection and Ranging) has made a massive discovery of the complexity of Mayan Cities in Guatemala. When scientists had previously thought jungle populations where smaller and more spread out, the new technology has discovered dense and intricate population centers with massive farming and defensive structures created by the civilization.

The technology works by firing lasers that can measure range and depth of the jungle by light. The images it generates creates topographical maps that give scientist a digitial view of where more dense structures in the jungle exist, giving them a concept of interconnect structures, irrigation pathways, and even what is thought to have been defensive watch towers.

What had previously taken scientist years to Map out, LiDAR technology covered 67 times more area in a matter of hours.

Here’s what you need to know about the discoveries of Mayan Civilization by LiDAR technology:

  • By raining down laser pulses on some 770 square miles of dense forest in northern Guatemala, archaeologists have discovered 60,000 Maya structures that make up full sprawling cities.
  • And the new technology provides them with an unprecedented view into how the ancient civilization worked, revealing almost industrial agricultural infrastructure and new insights into Maya warfare.
  • “This is a game changer,” says Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist at Ithaca College who is one of the leaders of the project. It changes “the base level at which we do Maya archaeology.”
  • The data reveals that the area was three or four times more densely populated than originally thought. “I mean, we’re talking about millions of people, conservatively,” says Garrison. “Probably more than 10 million people.”
  • The researchers fired LiDAR technology, short for “Light Detection and Ranging,” down at the dense forest from an airplane. This research was organized by the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative
  • “As it flies the laser pulses hundreds of thousands of times per second,” Garrison adds. “And every time one of those lasers hits a point of resistance it stops and sends back a measurement to the plane.”
  • LiDAR allows scientists to accomplish years or even decades worth of mapping in a single afternoon.
  • The plane using LiDAR took data for 67 square miles in a matter of hours.
  • “For those of us that spent our lives mapping and slogging around this area … you just sort of have to bow before the LiDAR and accept the fact that it’s better than you are.”
  • “It’s very humbling,”
  • they knew that the Maya fought, often with each other, because defensive walls had been previously spotted. But this new information reveals “Maya fortresses and systems of interconnected watchtowers,” raising the possibility of more sophisticated and large-scale warfare.
  • Suddenly having a broad view allows archaeologists to ask many new questions, he says. And there’s plenty of forest to still explore — the study area is a fraction of the total area where the Maya lived.

Learn more @ NPR

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