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Major discovery upends long-held theories about Maya civilization

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Extrapolated over the 36,700 square miles, which encompasses the total Maya lowland region, the study authors estimate the Maya built as many as 2.7 million structures. Image: Washington Post


The largest survey ever made of the Maya region has finally been published.

Although the study was completed in 2016, its first clues came in the autumn of 1929, when Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles flew across the Yucatán Peninsula.

Charles controlled the plane while Anne snapped photographs of the jungles below. She noted Maya structures obscured by large humps of vegetation. A bright stone wall peeked through the leaves, “unspeakably alone and majestic and desolate — the mark of a great civilization gone,” she wrote in her journal.

Nearly a century later, surveyors once again took flight over the ancient Maya empire, and mapped the Guatemala forests with lasers. The 2016 survey, whose first results were published this week in the journal Science, comprises a dozen plots covering 830 square miles, an area larger than the island of Maui.

“It’s like putting glasses on when your eyesight is blurry,” said study author Mary Jane Acuña, director of El Tintal Archaeological Project.

In the past, archaeologists had argued that small, disconnected city-states dotted the Maya lowlands. Today, experts suspect otherwise. Maya agriculture sustained large populations, who in turn forged relationships across sprawling regions in what today we’d call suburbs.

The modern team found 61,480 structures including 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals that connected cities; large maize farms; houses; and, surprisingly, defensive fortifications that suggest the Maya came under attack from the west.

“All of us saw things we had walked over and we realized, oh wow, we totally missed that,” said Tulane University anthropologist Marcello Canuto, the study’s lead author.

Preliminary images from the survey went public in February, to the delight of archaeologists like Sarah Parcak. Parcak wrote on Twitter, “Hey all: you realize that researchers just used lasers to find *60,000* new sites in Guatemala?!? This is HOLY [expletive] territory.”

“The scale of information that we’re able to collect now is unprecedented,” Parcak said, adding that this survey is “going to upend long-held theories about ancient Maya society.”

With support from a Guatemala-based heritage foundation called Pacunam, the researchers conducted the massive and expensive survey using lidar, or light detection and ranging. They mapped several active archaeological sites, plus well-studied Maya cities like Tikal and Uaxactun.

Lidar’s principles are similar to radar, except instead of radio waves lidar relies on laser light that penetrates vegetation but bounces back from hard stone surfaces.

Beneath the thick jungle, ruins appeared. Lots and lots of them. Extrapolated over the 36,700 square miles, which encompasses the total Maya lowland region, the authors estimate the Maya built as many as 2.7 million structures. These would have supported 7 million to 11 million people during the Classic Period of Maya civilization, around the years 650 to 800, in line with other Maya population estimates.

“We’ve been working in this area for over a century,” Canuto said. “It’s not terra incognita, but we didn’t have a good appreciation for what was really there.”

Archaeologist Arlen Chase, a Maya specialist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (and who was not involved with this survey), said for years he has argued that the Maya society was more complex than widely accepted. In 1998, he and archaeologist Diane Chase, his wife, described elaborate agricultural terraces at the Maya city of Caracol in Belize. “Everybody would not believe we had terraces!” he said.

He gets much less push back now.

“The paradigm shift that we’ve predicted was happening is in fact happening” Chase said, which he credits to lidar data. He has seen lidar evolve from a “hush-hush type of technology” used by the military to map Fallujah streets to a powerful archaeological tool.

But lidar cannot replace old-fashioned archaeology. For 8 percent of the survey area, the archaeologists had to confirm the lidar data with boots-on-the-ground visits.

Source: Washington Post

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