Amazing Places

We Just Found a Massive Ancient Civilization in Guatemala

When Europeans began invading the Americas in force, they destroyed a lot of history along the way. They also destroyed the idea that the people who had been living on the continent for millennia were, well, people, with cultures and religions and cities of their own. That's carried all the way to the present day — most people these days think the Maya had an apocalyptic calendar, a couple of stone pyramids, and that's about it. But a new scan of the Guatemalan jungle has revealed a much more advanced infrastructure than even the experts would have guessed.

Welcome to the Jungle, We've Got Maya Things

What's been waiting in the jungle this whole time? Wide, raised highways connecting cities, complex irrigation systems, and no fewer than 60,000 residences, palaces, and other structures. This abundant discovery was made possible through the use of LiDAR (short for "Light Detection and Ranging"), which is capable of peering through the jungle's dense vegetation and seeing the hidden structures underneath. Seriously, in that area of the world, you could be standing right in front of a giant pyramid and not even realize it. But now that we have realized it, it's become clear that the Maya civilization was way bigger than we ever thought.

The project, which was spearheaded by the Pacunam Foundation, didn't target the entire Maya region. It only scanned about 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of it, split among 10 different parcels of land. Even so, the findings suggested a densely populated region much more like ancient Greece or China than the sparsely populated "islands" of civilization modern archaeologists had originally believed were there. At its height, around 250–900 C.E., the Maya civilization was approximately twice as large as England, but was much more densely populated. The LiDAR revealed that the Maya empire may have had as many as 15 million citizens. Such a population was possible thanks to the empire's elaborate road networks and infrastructure.

Looting and Polluting

The LiDAR didn't just uncover good news, though. Besides the wealth of newly discovered ancient structures, it also turned up the telltale signs of looters. In other words, these pyramids, palaces, and residences may have been a secret to researchers, but they weren't to unscrupulous huecheros, people who sell lost antiquities on the black market.

Thieves aren't the only threat these ancient sites face. Deforestation and other environmental concerns put them at constant risk as well. Guatemala is currently losing its forestlands at a rate of about 10 percent per year. Just like the archaeologists, the industrialists and other trespassers who clear the land aren't able to see the ancient sites before they do so — but when they're done, those sites are destroyed forever. That's why it's more important than ever that we map the Maya world and protect it from four more centuries of wanton destruction.

Using Digital Resources to Preserve Mayan Antiquities

Written by Reuben Westmaas February 28, 2018

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