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Jungle-penetrating Lidar sheds light on ancient Maya structures

By Karen Graham     Oct 1, 2018 in Science
Lidar, a form of 3D laser scanning, provides a powerful technique for three-dimensional mapping. It is proving to be a valuable tool in archaeology, particularly where the remains of structures may be hidden beneath forest canopies.
Two Tulane researchers, Marcello A. Canuto and Francisco Estrada-Belli, were part of a team of researchers, including assistant professor of anthropology Thomas Garrison at Ithaca College and other scholars who made the discovery in the Petén forest of Guatemala, originally announced in February 2018.
The discovery in the Petén forest includes more than 60,000 structures, including isolated houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers and pyramids. The jungle area in the northern Petén province of Guatemala is where Tikal (tee-KAL), an ancient Maya city is located.
Temple 5C-54 (the Lost World Pyramid)  part of a large E-Group complex dating to the Preclassic. Tik...
Temple 5C-54 (the Lost World Pyramid), part of a large E-Group complex dating to the Preclassic. Tikal, Peten, Guatemala. Restored west face.
Simon Burchell
Tikal was an important and influential city during the heyday of the Maya Empire (1000 BCE-1500 CE). Archaeologists first began exploring the Petén forest in the late 19th century, and a number of structures have been excavated, including the Plaza of Seven Temples, the Palace at the Central Acropolis and the Lost World complex.
But researchers felt that many roads, villages and temples were still hidden by dense jungle. So, in 2016, the Pacunam Lidar Initiative (PLI) undertook the largest Lidar survey to date of the Maya region, mapping 2,144 square kilometers of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.
LIDAR reveals the extent of the empire
LiDAR technology is able to pierce through the thick forest canopy and map features on the earth's surface, it can be used to produce ground maps that enable researchers to identify human-made features on the ground, such as walls, roads or buildings, according to the research team.
“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”
During the Maya Classic Period  it is estimated that the Petén Basin was home to several million pe...
During the Maya Classic Period, it is estimated that the Petén Basin was home to several million people, being one of the most densely populated regions of the world at the time. You can see Tikal rising above the jungle canopy
Estrada-Belli specializes in the use of remote sensing and geographic information systems on early Maya civilization, and he said the discoveries were made in a matter of minutes, compared to what would have taken years of fieldwork without the Lidar technology.
“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” he said.
The findings are revealed
A group of 18 scholars from the U.S., Europe and Guatemalan institutions including the Ministry of Culture and Sports were enabled by the Fundación PACUNAM (Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation) to analyze the Lidar data. The findings were published in the journal Science on September 28, 2018.
The consortium examined 61,480 ancient structures in the survey region, finding a density of 29 structures per square kilometer. Extrapolation of population density for the central lowlands during the Late Classic period (650 to 800 CE) produced a population density at that time in the range of seven million to 11 million.
All these new findings suggest the Maya used more advanced agriculture practices than previously thought. Roads linking many of the urban centers of the time also suggest that Mayan cities were more closely connected than earlier thought.
According to the study, Lidar imaging shows field systems in the low-lying wetlands and terraces in the upland areas. The scale of wetland systems and their association with dense populations suggest centralized planning, whereas upland terraces cluster around residences, implying local management.
More about Guatamala, Ancient Maya, Archaeology, lidar, Tulane University