New Technology Reveals 60,000 Maya Structures In Ancient Cities Hidden In Guatemala

Manuel ValdesAP Images

When archaeologists were mapping 800 square miles of jungle in Guatemala, they discovered 60,000 brand new Mayan structures, which had never been spotted before thanks to groundbreaking new technology known as LiDAR, or Light Detection And Ranging.

These structures include large and intricately elevated highways, houses, palaces, and numerous other structures that have been lying dormant for centuries. The area that archaeologists focused on was near Tikal in the ruins of what was once a great city and in what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Center.

According to National Geographic, the discovery of so many new Mayan relics and structures shows that the area around the Petén region of Guatemala is even more massive than archaeologists had ever imagined, as Thomas Garrison explained.

“The LIDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated.”

By using LiDAR, the endless tree canopies could be erased from images of the Maya landscape, revealing just how interconnected this area would have once been. Contrary to previous beliefs that these areas were just regular city states, new evidence found in the form of highly sophisticated irrigation systems shows that the Maya culture would have been quite refined 1,200 years ago.

Archaeologist Marcello Canuto has said that it is a mistake to believe that complex societies can’t thrive in the tropics.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die. 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.”

As far as the estimated Maya population that would have once thrived in this region of Guatemala, archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli believes that it is fully possible that up to 15 million people could have lived in the area, according to new LiDAR evidence.

“Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million. With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.”

But because there is so much data to wade through, Estrada-Belli also noted that it will take quite a long time to fully understand all of the evidence that has been acquired through LiDAR.

“We’ll need 100 years to go through all the data and really understand what we’re seeing.”

Featured image credit: Manuel ValdesAP Images

Unfortunately for archaeology, these new images also revealed that while the Maya structures are indeed new to archaeologists and most of us, they are not at all new when it comes to looters. Another problem with this region is that around 10 percent of the forests of Guatemala are being lost each year as people are illegally burning land, especially near Mexico, so that the areas can then be settled with the land fully cleared.

PACUNAM Foundation’s Marianne Hernandez has said that it is her hope that once these hidden structures are recognized as being places of value with their deep and rich history, these sites can be protected in the future.

“By identifying these sites and helping to understand who these ancient people were, we hope to raise awareness of the value of protecting these places.”

If you are interested in learning more about the new Maya structures and cities found in Guatemala, the new PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative is still at the start of a three-year project and there will no doubt be many more exciting and new discoveries ahead.