Laser map of landscape (© Estrada-Belli/PACUNAM)
A laser-generated view of Tikal, one of the largest urban centers of the ancient Mayan civilization in what is now northern Guatemala. (© Estrada-Belli/PACUNAM)

Archaeologists have adopted a laser technology, first developed by NASA engineers in the 1970s, to uncover an ancient Mayan civilization hidden in the dense jungles of Central America.

Composite with buildings rising above forest canopy and laser map of landscape (© Estrada-Belli/PACUNAM)
Above: View of Tikal’s center. Below: The same view recreated with lidar mapping shows temples, palaces and causeways hidden under the canopy. (© Estrada-Belli/PACUNAM)

“We finally could see a bigger picture of Maya archaeology that had remained hidden under the forest for a thousand years,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist at Tulane University in Louisiana.

He was one of the scholars on an international team, half from American universities, involved in discovering more than 61,000 ancient structures using the laser mapping technology called lidar (short for “light detection and ranging”), a laser device that essentially beams pulses of light from the air to objects on the ground and measures the distance. Once the measurement points are processed on a computer, it generates a map of the landscape.

“Basically, it’s digitally deforesting the jungle,” said Thomas Garrison, a colleague of Estrada-Belli’s at Ithaca College in New York state. NASA still uses lidar today to study the atmosphere.

The Maya civilization flourished from 1000 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E. in the lowland regions known today as Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and southern Mexico.

New insights

The study, supported by Guatemala’s Pacunam Foundation, unveiled extensive Mayan road systems, defense structures, and agricultural systems able to feed a population now thought to be up to four times larger than earlier believed. That population, said Garrison, was perhaps as high as 11 million people around 800 C.E.

Laser map of landscape (© Thomas Garrison/PACUNAM)
A lidar-derived image shows the heavily fortified ancient city of El Zotz, a political rival of its neighbor, Tikal. (© Thomas Garrison/PACUNAM)

“I was shocked by the extent to which the Maya manipulated every inch of the landscape. It is the most domesticated, optimized environment I have ever seen. I don’t think anyone expected to see that,” Estrada-Belli said.

“Maya archaeology will never be the same, in the same way as astronomy was changed by the Hubble telescope.”

~ Francisco Estrada-Belli

While the dense jungle had made the archaeologists’ work difficult for many years, it also served to preserve the ancient civilization.

Central America map with areas marked (© MARI GIS Lab)
Blocks represent the areas surveyed with airborne lidar mapping in relation to the area known as the central Mayan lowlands (circled). (© MARI GIS Lab)

Estrada-Belli remarked on how many Mayan sites were heavily fortified. “I imagine huge armies attended them as well,” he said. “It’s just one of many discoveries that shattered our previous beliefs about the Maya.”

The study revealed the Mayan population was much higher than the current population, Garrison said, “which is interesting because it shows that perhaps the agricultural practices they were using were actually more sustainable than anything they are using today.”

A map of the past as a guide for today

Understanding how people used tropical landscapes is important to Maya experts because of a tropical area’s bearing on today’s climate and ecosystems. “These were places that seemed to have been managed very successfully by people in the past, perhaps better than we’re doing now,” Garrison said.

In Mayan lowlands, agricultural systems included extensive terracing, reclaimed swamps and elaborate canal systems. Next steps for the team of academics were to get on the ground and figure out how people had managed the landscape.

Although the lidar technology has increased understanding of the Maya, “it also still makes them mysterious in some ways,” Garrison said.  “There’s this sense there’s so much more we haven’t even studied.”