What’s down there

To move to a less distasteful subject than rapey theocrats and constitution-trampling crooks, there’s this exciting story that’s been in the headlines for a couple of days of finding huge previously unknown Maya sites buried in Guatemala.

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 technology makes it possible to strip away vegetation visually and see what it’s hiding. Garrison spent eight years with a team mapping less than a square mile at a site called El Zotz without LiDAR, while LiDar took data for 67 square miles in a few hours.

The most important Maya city, Tikal, was found to be three or four times larger than the scientists had thought, with a previously undiscovered pyramid in its center. And Garrison adds that they’re not totally sure they’ve surveyed the entire extent of that city.

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.

I call that exciting.

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