Archaeologists have spent more than a century traipsing through the Guatemalan jungle, Indiana Jones-style, searching through dense vegetation to learn what they could about the Maya civilization that was one of the dominant societies in Mesoamerica for centuries.
But the latest discovery — one archaeologists are calling a “game changer” — didn't even require a can of bug spray.
Scientists using high-tech, airplane-based lidar mapping tools have discovered tens of thousands of structures constructed by the Maya: defense works, houses, buildings, industrial-size agricultural fields, even new pyramids. The findings, announced Thursday, are already reshaping long-held views about the size and scope of the Maya civilization.
“This world, which was lost to this jungle, is all of a sudden revealed in the data,” said Albert Yu-Min Lin, an engineer and National Geographic explorer who worked on a television special about the new find. “And what you thought was this massively understood, studied civilization is all of a sudden brand new again,” he told the New York Times
Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist at Ithaca College who led the project, called it monumental: “This is a game changer,” he told NPR. It changes “the base level at which we do Maya archaeology.”
The findings were announced by Guatemala's Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation), also known as PACUNAM, which has been working with the lidar system alongside a group of European and U.S. archaeologists.
The lidar system fires rapid laser pulses at surfaces — sometimes as many as 150,000 pulses per second — and measures how long it takes that light to return to sophisticated measuring equipment.
Doing that over and over again lets scientists create a topographical map of sorts. Months of computer modeling allowed the researchers to virtually strip away half a million acres of jungle that has grown over the ruins. What's left is a surprisingly clear picture of how a 10th-century Maya would see the landscape.
Scientists used similar scans to unearth a network of ancient cities in Angkor, the heart of the Khmer empire in Cambodia that includes the famed Angkor Wat, according to the Times. Lidar has the potential to unearth civilizations even in the densest jungles of Brazil...
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