A vast, interconnected network of ancient cities was home to millions more people than previously thought.
By Tom Clynes
Author’s note: This story, which I reported in Guatemala and Mexico, attracted the world’s attention more than most. It garnered more than a million reads on the National Geographic website and was picked up by nearly every major media outlet. One of the more curious reactions came from some members of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who argued that the new discoveries affirmed the Book of Mormon’s historical narrative.
In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala.
Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.
Garrison is part of a consortium of researchers who are participating in the project, which was spearheaded by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that fosters scientific research, sustainable development, and cultural heritage preservation. The project mapped more than 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, producing the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.
The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city states that ground-based research had long suggested.
Author, photojournalist and National Geographic speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous sides of science, the environment, education and archaeology. His work appears in National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, The Atlantic and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences with his stories and photos and bringing them along on assignment to fascinating locations around the globe. To contact Tom and find out more about his memorable and motivating programs, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.