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Digital deforestation brings back to light the secrets of the Maya

A sophisticated laser technology has enabled archaelogists to discover huge cities built by this ancient, mysterious civilization

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Laser technology reveals Maya megalopolis beneath Guatemalan jungle

A National Geographic documentary recently aired in the U.S., focusing on the discovery of new Maya remains thanks to digital deforestation, a cutting-edge technique brought to the fore by Thomas Garrison, archaeologist at the Ithaca College, New York.

Let’s take a step back, though. Northern Guatemala rain forests conceal a lot of secrets. For hundreds of years, the pristine landscape has preserved many relics and remains of the Maya, who were once absolute lords in the area, making even harder the work of scientists and archaelogists that, over the years, have tried to dig into the past of this ancient civilization, renowned for its hieroglyphic writing and extreme artistic, scientific and architectural skills.

Courtesy © Ithaca College

The Maya civilization began to emerge about 3.000 years ago, and reached its zenith during the Classic Period, from about A.D. 250-900. Now, technology that allows for digital deforestation has uncovered hundreds of Maya structures previously undetected beneath the lush vegetation. A thrilling discovery for archaeologists like Thomas Garrison, since the findings have definitely recast notions about the size and density of Central American society. It was Garrison himself who helped orchestrate the 2016 aerial survey these revelations stem from.

The documentary we mentioned earlier, titled Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake King, illustrates the new technology that brought forth the latest findings. It is called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and Garrison himself appears in the documentary commenting on the mapping and its results.

“It is very hard to figure out what might be concealed under that thick, green canopy, yet what we found is incredible, and it was awesome uncovering it by using this technique”, he stated.

Courtesy © Ithaca College

The laser survey of 2,100-square kilometers included several major Maya sites, among them the largest at Tikal, and El Zotz, where Garrison focused his research. The LiDAR mapping revealed over 60.000 previously unknown structures, from pyramids to palaces, from terraced fields to defensive walls and towers, not to mention houses. Archaeologists immediately realized that the ancient towns they spent decades studying are much bigger and populated than they had ever thought. Particularly striking to the archaeologists were newly revealed farming practices that would be necessary to support the lowland Maya population that, at the peak of the Maya empire, reached 10-20 million inhabitants.

The LiDAR survey is a collaboration between archaeologists from the U.S., Europe and Guatemala, and the Fundación PACUNAM (Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya). Yet, as Garrison underlines, “this is just the beginning. There is so much more to discover about the rise, glory and fall of the Maya civilization. There are innumerable areas yet to be searched and analyzed. It is a virtually endless work.”


by Elena Marzorati / 14 February 2018

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