15-Year-Old Discovers Lost Mayan City, Maybe

Canada’s William Gadoury, a 15-year-old private school student, got a chance to test his hypothesis about the Mayan civilization and found a lost city in the process. The story seems extraordinary, and experts are coming forward to pop the news-created bubble. Still, it highlights a fairly successful use of technology and the brilliant efforts of a young amateur archaeologist.

Gadoury had a “longstanding interest” in Mayan civilization, according to Fox News, but he wondered why the ancient civilization put its cities in such strange places far from fertile areas and water. He came up with an idea related to the Mayan fascination with astronomy. What if there was a connection between the stars and the cities?

He took his theory through numerous science contests and finally wound up meeting with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

CSA Project Manager Daniel De Lisle was impressed.

“You could see the boy was very bright and knew what he was talking about. He had his binders prepared with questions and answers both in French and English.”

The manager allowed Gadoury to test his hypothesis using the high-resolution satellite images from NASA and the Japanese Space Agency. Then he superimposed images from Google Maps and Google Earth images.

CBS News reports that he went through 22 different star constellations known by the Mayan, and laid them over a map of their cities — 117 cities matched the stars.

A 23rd constellation revealed the location of another city deep beneath the canopy, one that hadn’t been discovered by archaeologists.

“There are linear features that would suggest there is something underneath that big canopy. There are enough items to suggest it could be a man-made structure,” De Lisle told the Independent.

The news went wild at the suggestion that the 15-year-old had succeeded in finding a lost Mayan city. The problem is, it probably isn’t one.

Plenty of experts are poking holes in the theory.

Thomas Garrison, an anthropologist at USC Dornsife and an expert in remote sensing, told Gizmodo that it’s like a field.

“I’d guess its been fallow for 10-15 years. This is obvious to anyone that has spent any time at all in the Maya lowlands. I hope that this young scholar will consider his pursuits at the university level so that his next discovery (and there are plenty to be made) will be a meaningful one.”

Another spot on the map could possibly be a clearing or a small dry lake.

Then there’s the constellations themselves. Wired reports that the Mayan did have constellations, but there’s not a clear list of them.

Anthony Aveni, a founder of the field of archeoastronomy, said that “Maya constellations that we know of, with the exception of Scorpio, bear no relation to those we find on modern star maps.”

He added that there are other explanations for the strange placement of Mayan cities, including access to swamp mud for their terraces.

There’s another possibility too, that the area is simply part of the dense tapestry of Mayan civilization in the area.

Curator Susan Milbrath at the Florida Museum of Natural History wrote about the area in an email.

“The Maya area was so densely occupied in Classic Maya times that many years ago a well known archaeologist, Ed Kurjack, told me that the area looked much like the Ohio Valley, denuded of trees and full of towns that were fairly close to one another.”

The area being looked at is near the ancient Mayan city of Uxul, where scientists have been excavating since 2009.

In the end, only a ground inspection will determine if Gadoury really found a lost Mayan city. One way or the other, the hypothesis and research is impressive.

[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]