Tulane researchers help find vast network of Mayan cities
By MARIA CLARK
Feb. 25, 2018
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A team of Tulane University archaeologists and an international group of researchers have uncovered a network of thousands of ancient Mayan structures previously hidden for centuries under the thick canopy of the northern Guatemalan jungle.
Using a technology called LiDAR (light detection and range technology) the team which includes Marcello A. Canuto, the director of Tulane University's Middle American Research Institute, and Francisco Estrada-Belli, a research assistant professor and director of the Holmul Archaeological Project, has uncovered more than 60,000 ancient structures covering 1,305 square miles.
The technology uses sensors to pierce through the thick forest canopy to create high-resolution maps that reveal man-made structures hidden under thick vegetation.
For example, the sensors revealed a 90-foot-tall pyramid once thought to be a hill at Tikal, one of the most thoroughly investigated of all Mayan cities.
Tikal, also known as the location for the rebel base in the Star Wars movie Rogue One, is now believed to have been a much bigger city than previously thought. In some cases, known urban centers turned out to be 40 times bigger than what existing maps showed, and include several monumental complexes that were previously believed to be separate sites. The LiDAR sensors have uncovered houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, pyramids and ancient roadways that up until five years ago were nearly impossible to find in the thick vegetation of the Peten Forest.
The mapping tool also revealed how a network of roads and causeways connected Mayan cities in that region.
The discoveries shed new light on the population density of Mayan cities and a closer look at how Mayans made modifications to the land to support an advanced agricultural network. It is now estimated that 10 million people may have lived within the Maya lowlands, an estimate much higher than previously thought.
"What has been revealed is that these cities were far bigger and more populated than we had ever thought," Canuto said, pointing to a high-resolution map revealing indentations in the ground.
He explained how the indentations showed how the ancient civilization transformed their landscape to make it more agriculturally productive.
The team of researchers, which also includes archaeology students from Tulane University, were funded by the PACUNAM Foundation to spearhead the LiDAR project. PACUNAM is a Guatemalan non-profit organization dedicated to fostering scientific research, conservation and sustainable development of cultural and natural resources in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala.