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Archeologists have new high-tech tool to explore Mayan past

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An example of a LiDar-generated map. Photo: NCSU

Recent advancements in archeological technology will be behind a three-year study of Yucatán’s Puuc region.

Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR technology, will be a central component of a US$286,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Anthropology Prof. George Bey, of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.; Bill Ringle, of Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.; and Tomas Gallareta of Centro INAH Yucatán, were the grant’s recipients. 

They will explore the hilly region 80 km. south of Mérida. Travelers today take the “Puuc Route,” or Ruta Puuc, to see Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, X-Lapak, Labna, the caves of Loltún, haciendas such as the Yaxcopoil museum, cenotes, Maya villages and larger Maya villages such as Ticul and Oxkutzcab.

The academics will scour the heavily forested region differently. They will be guided by LiDAR lasers aimed from above to provide high-resolution maps.

“A plane flies over, and it’s shooting a laser out, and the laser is going so fast that it’s actually going between all the leaves, and it’s creating an image of everything,” Bey tells the Jackson Free Press. “Then, what we have to do is use the computer. … Removing all the data that’s above the ground, the computer just literally takes off (the parts we don’t need) so that all you’re left with is an image of the surface.”

While the LiDAR flyover is scheduled to take place at the end of April, the trio plans to meet in Mexico around the end of May. By then, the data will begin coming in from the flyover. The 150-square-miles section is an area that has never been explored via LiDAR before.

They anticipate a fruitful visit. While perhaps 10,000 people live in the region today, in the pre-Columbian period, there may have been a million or more, says Bey. With the previous large population comes the probability of new discoveries hidden in the hills.

It’s more than palaces and tombs they’re after, Bey says.

“We’re trying to reconstruct the history of these people, over 2,000 years of occupation in that region,” he says. 

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