LiDAR Scans Reveal Maya Were Far Bigger and More Complex Than Thought

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 27, 2018 1:00 pm
tikal temples

Temples at Tikal rise above the forest canopy. (Credit: Evgeny Drokov/Shutterstock)

FLORES, Guatemala — From above, the vastness of the Guatemalan jungle stretches to the horizon in an unbroken swath of dense greenery. On the ground, the forest blends into a blur of foliage. The only sounds are the clamor of cicadas and howler monkeys.

But to step through the undergrowth in the northern Guatemalan lowlands is to walk the buried remnants of the ancient Maya civilization. The jungle hides fields, roads, canals and even whole settlements. And that civilization just got a whole lot bigger.

Thousands of previously hidden structures were recently uncovered in Central America thanks to a powerful technology known as LiDAR. And now, a new estimate of the Maya population based on those surveys suggests as many as 11 million people once lived throughout the region.

The LiDAR analysis also shows that Maya cities and surrounding settlements sprawl for miles around city centers, connected by a web of roads and dense grids of farm fields.

First published earlier this year, scientists report that a LiDAR survey of unprecedented size uncovered over 60,000 new structures across more than 800 square miles in the Petén region of northern Guatemala. Organized by cultural heritage group PACUNAM, and comprising numerous individual researchers and dig sites, the scans show a society of impressive scale and surprising heterogeneity.

From a slow-flying airplane above, millions of laser beams rain through the canopy. When they bounce back, the light pulses reveal the contours of the ground below, often down to a resolution of just a few feet. The technique lays bare the outlines of structures below, making it possible to map the land of the Maya like never before.

This fresh perspective is painting a picture of a complex culture with a high degree of societal organization and providing archaeologists with detailed information about where to dig that lays out a roadmap for years of future exploration.

Seeing the World Anew

For researchers like Ithaca College archaeologist and study co-author Thomas Garrison, the scans are revolutionizing the way research is conducted in the jungle. Before LiDAR, archaeologists and their teams would methodically criss-cross the uneven terrain, mapping out features of interest and making occasional exploratory digs. It was slow, demanding work; Garrison spent the spring recuperating from a hip transplant necessitated by years of fieldwork. Decades of work in the region had picked out a number of large cities and settlements scattered throughout the region, but they missed far more than they found.

Now, in camp, Garrison can pull up the LiDAR maps on his laptop and fly over a virtual representation of the surrounding landscape with a flick of his mouse. Structures dot the ground in every direction, the majority of them unknown to him even after a decade of work at his dig site.

Maya lidar

A newly-documented site to the north of Tikal illustrates the range of features uncovered by LiDAR, as well as the complexity of interpreting them. The elongated building at top right is part of a so-called E Group complex and may pre-date 500 BCE. Across the valley, the large acropolis is likely a thousand years younger, though it may cover earlier constructions. Its broad access ramp overlaps an earlier causeway that runs between two eroded hilltop platforms, at the top and bottom of the image. Small houses and sunken garden enclosures cover the hillsides. (Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM)

In some areas near major cities like Tikal, population densities likely rose to hundreds of people per square mile. Over a thousand years ago, this remote jungle would have felt downright suburban.

“In certain parts of these areas … every little rise and hillock in the landscape has a family living on it, extending for miles outside of places like Tikal,” Garrison says. “When you step out of your house in the morning, you look out, you’re seeing all of your neighbors right there, everyone’s right on top of each other.”

It’s pushing estimates of the Maya population to over 10 million people at its Classic period height between 600 and 800 AD. However, not all researchers agree that we can reliably guess at the sizes of ancient populations. But, numbers aside, it’s clear that the Maya dominated this landscape during their heyday.

Engineering Projects

In addition to the thousands of housing platforms where thatched huts once stood, the scans also revealed vast networks of roads as well as over a hundred square miles of fields hacked into hillsides as terraces or erected in the middle of swamps and irrigated by a complex canal system. New and exciting defensive features emerged from the scans, too. The results were published Thursday in Science.

Examples of fields, roads and defensive fortifications had been found before, but because of the peephole nature of most digs, it wasn’t known whether such structures were unique. The LiDAR scans reveal that examples of ecosystem engineering and construction are widespread throughout Maya territory, something that hints at a society that’s more organized and hierarchical than previously thought.

“Defensive features, causeways, all of these things had to have been built in a coordinated way,” says Marcello Canuto, the director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University and another co-author of the study. “So you start to have to contemplate the idea that there is a regional logic behind things as much as there is a local logic behind it.”

The sheer number of people living in and around cities is another indicator that Maya life was ordered to some degree, according to Garrison.

“In general it looks like, at least in the central and eastern part of the Petén in the Classic period, the settlement is so dense that this must have been an area where everyone knew exactly what their place was, what lands were theirs,” he says.

Tikal Lidar

A view of Tikal contrasted with the city as seen through LiDAR scans. (Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto/PACUNAM)

It didn’t look like that everywhere in the Maya territory, though. The scans also show a high degree of variation between different regions. Some are dominated by fields, while others are mostly urban. Some have a high concentration of defensive features, some have none at all. People clustered in some areas and spread out across others.

“There were urban areas, there were rural areas, there were areas in between, there were empty areas. It just looks and reads like the landscape of a complex society,” Canuto says. “Like any map that you see of any modern nation or any populated ancient context or modern context you’re going to have places where people congregate and people live more closely together and are more dense and places where they don’t.”

Those areas of population density don’t always map onto the areas that researchers had assumed were most important based on hieroglyphic texts, Garrison says. This opens up a significant number of areas for reinterpretation. Some areas, for example, could have been a kind of breadbasket for the region, producing food for nearby cities and settlements where there weren’t enough fields to support the number of people living there. Others may have produced specialized crops for trade with distant kingdoms.

Maya Militarization

The scans hint at totally new aspects of Maya society as well. Near to Garrison’s dig site of a decade, so near in fact, that he’d walked by it without realizing what was there, the LiDAR picked out a curious collection of structures and walls. Though excavations have just begun at the site, to Garrison’s practiced eye its function is clear: It was a fortress.

He’s named it La Cuernavilla, and the collection of buildings includes a moat, large wall, temple and palace, set atop an imposing ridgeline. A nearby watchtower was part of a network that spread throughout the Maya lowlands, ready to warn of impending attack. It’s the first time archaeologists have found Maya structures built expressly for warfare, and it implies an unexpected level of military engineering.

“It’s amazing. It’s so new. This is the kind of thing that no one ever suspected to show up,” says Michael Coe, a Yale University archaeologist and Maya scholar who’s not involved with the team. “It’s a major discovery.”

Garrison will be coming back to the site for years to plumb its secrets, as will other team members at their respective dig sites. The LiDAR scans, which comprise just a seventh of the area the researchers hope to eventually cover, have forever changed the practice of archaeology in Central America. It’s quietly revolutionary, too, for the way in which it’s brought together many disparate projects in Central America, Garrison says, and he credits PACUNAM with fostering a sense of cooperation among the researchers.

“The foundation are the ones that really coordinated this collaboration of all these authors on the article in a way that archaeologists don’t usually collaborate,” he says. “That was a critical thing here, was getting these different projects to cooperate in order to to reveal broader patterns. Too often, archaeologists really just focus on the sites they’re working at.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • Steve Neubeck

    We are humans. We did have one thing Europeans didn’t, civilised societies.

    • RebelSoldier

      Thank you for being stupid.

      • William Ripskull

        Kinda like Neil Young’s song, “Cortez the Killer”, “Hate was just a legend, war was never known…”. Although referring to the Aztecs, Central and South American life was a little less than utopian back then for many people. The pyramids there, where tens of thousands of people were “sacrificed so others could go on” by having their hearts cut out while still alive and then having their head lopped off and rolled down the stairs, speak to this “utopian” existence. As always, the perception of good times depends on whether you’re the one cutting out others hearts or you’re the one being held down having your heart hacked out with a crude knife. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that these people weren’t pulled from a vast group of volunteers.

        • OWilson

          Whatever, I’d wager their definition of “volunteer” was not the same as our own! :)

          Sort of like some front line soldiers in WW1 and WW2 who risked being shot by their own, if they didn’t move, “forward!”.

        • RebelSoldier

          In the real world no human civilization is any kind of utopia and none is bad where another is good.

          • SaguaroJack49

            Still, it’s likely even the old Maya would prefer today’s civilization to their own. It’s nice to have warm water to shower, and air conditioning when it’s hot, and real medicine when you’re sick, and not having to make ten kids so that just one might survive to adulthood, and cars to drive across real hiways on, and Taco Bell, and like that there.

          • RebelSoldier

            To get here the Mayans have had to trek through one epidemic after the other. It’s said that more than 90% of the Indians in the Americas died of disease in short order after the Colombian Contact. Given that fact I doubt that the Mayans if given the choice would have jumped at the chance. Reality and history are infinitely more complicated than we realize.

          • SaguaroJack49

            Had they the choice, the Mayas would have chosen modern civilization over their own. Everybody everywhere does.

    • RuckusTom

      Ha. The wheel. Europeans at least had that. And metal, pointy spears and swords … and gunpowder. 500 Spaniards vs. 10000 Jaguar warriors … guess who won?

    • Proud Skeptic

      Who, exactly, is “we”?


      Why is it that all the most successful countries on the face of the earth are made up of White Europeans? We’re outnumbered ten to one yet we rule the world.

    • SaguaroJack49

      Ripping hearts out of living people is real civilizing. A shame we didn’t let the Maya sacrificial culture survive into the present. All you liberals could go there and contribute your hearts to their nobleness.

      • Bob Ross

        Get your GED, cretin, whose heart would be the first to be ripped out. You’re too dumb to live in a society.

        • SaguaroJack49

          HAHAHAHAHA!!! Really gets you down, doesn’t it? or should I say, “Don’t it”? HAHAHAHAHA!!!

          • Bob Ross

            Get your GED, crying, bent-over cretin.

    • Clever Hans

      Cutting the heart from living victims was very civilized

  • Roger Sinden

    So, as it turns out, evidently all of that forested region must have been slash and burned before Europeans invaded. How about that!

    • John Hayes

      Ah, so the European invasion and genocide was OK. Thanks for the racism.

      • Bwayne

        How did you reach that conclusion from what Roger Sinden said????

        • Play to win

          A lefty will often see (imagined) racism behind every corner.

          • William Ripskull

            Also misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, and fascism. Though they’re blinded to it, they see it most when they look in the mirror.

      • Play to win

        Pointing out that what Europeans may have done, what had been done before by another group, is not racism in any respect. Roger was making it clear that that the Europeans were not the villains they are often portrayed to be. Additionally, he never excused (or even mentioned) genocide.

        • Proud Skeptic

          It doesn’t take much of a knowledge of history to understand that the collision of two cultures inevitably ends in one becoming dominant and the other becoming reduced and marginalized.

          Technological development is usually a big determining factor in this.

          The cultures in this region did that to each other long before the Europeans arrived. This is nothing new.

          Europeans did it to Europeans, Asians to Asians, all cultures to all cultures since the beginning of time. The Old Testament is full of such stories.

          And, now, the ancestors of the Spanish Conquistadors are insisting that they own some sort of right to retake the American Southwest.

          You can’t make this stuff up.

          I guess it is natural when your histories don’t go back before your grandparents’ time that you would have no ability to think in broader terms.

          • FREECHEESE

            Lefturds can’t think. It’s beyond their two brain cells!

          • Moshe Feder

            You’re basically correct, until you start implying the existence of time travel.

            The “ancestors” of Spanish Conquistadors? I think you mean “descendants.”

          • Proud Skeptic

            Yeah…sorry…and me a genealogist! Corrected. Thanks.

      • Proud Skeptic

        That isn’t anything like what the guy said.

      • Mark Kapping

        John, you look so different without your pink pu$$y hat on!

      • Altoidian

        Just itching to make a point, I guess, right John?

      • Tom James

        Using your own twisted rationale, you must therefore endorse the human sacrifices and slavery of the ancient Mayans.

      • Bob Smith

        And here we have John to thank for his wonderful display of lefty ignorance and hatred.

      • Joe Dozer

        I presume you have deeded your home over to your local Native American tribe to atone for sins of your forebears. After all, you are illegally squatting on their land.

        I presume your hypocrisy and racism is the good kind and therefore OK.

        • FREECHEESE

          As soon as the native Americans give their land back to the Maritime Archaic people! The original inhabitors of this Continent?

        • dondehoff

          Joe, I would suspect about 90% of the world populations have occupied lands of “other peoples”, some many times over. It would be utter chaos to try and undo all of those invasions.

      • SaguaroJack49

        Ah, so European medicine and tech was bad. Thanks for the racism.

        • Bob Ross

          Tell us more, cretin. Need citations. Get your GED, cretin, to learn about citations.

          • SaguaroJack49

            Ah! More about GEDs! Poor Frank, all GEDless and jealous of people who have advanced degrees! Take your shriveled ego and scroteless self to GED class, perfervid monochrome carbuncle.

          • Bob Ross

            No, crying-and-bent-over cretin. I’m more educated than you. Now, get your GED. You’re dumb.

    • William Ripskull

      Are you suggesting that the Mayans would have been better off left in the stone age, or are you really suggesting that you would be better off if the Mayans had been left in the stone age?

    • Jack Palmer

      Just because they had buildings and infrastructure doesn’t mean everything was slashed and burned to make room for it. We have buildings and infrastructure too but not because we slashed and burned everything first. The fact that they used biochar in agriculture doesn’t mean they slashed and burned everything either which is a common misconception.

  • OWilson

    Do we love LIDAR? :)

    At least 200 new Egyptian “cities” located so far beneath the sands for the archaeologists to rummage through!

    And we find that the so-called primal virgin “Rain Forests” of the Amazon, were the result of human occupation and intervention!

  • Ray Franklin

    Ixhuachopetl was the biggest. He weighted two tons, had six legs, eight arms and four heads. They don’t get much bigger or complex than that.

    • SaguaroJack49

      And when that dude let one go, the whole region caught fire.

      • Ray Franklin

        Yes, that’s the myth, but what if he was actually in a space ship?

  • Proud Skeptic

    So…nature reclaimed what was rightfully hers after the invading humans were wiped out?

    • Bob Smith

      Why don’t you nature a favor and self sacrifice?

      • Proud Skeptic

        Why would I do that? You seem to have completely misunderstood my comment. In the end, nature always triumphs. There is no value judgement or other agenda intended.

  • OWilson

    While we are busy pulling down politically incorrect statues of war heroes, we also venerating the supposed “noble savage” Indigenous Peoples, who routinely raped, pillaged, enslaved, and even ate their own neighbors and did the same to the poor undocumented immigrants to America, who came seeking only a better life for themselves and their families!

    Sometimes our Iphone generation completely loses perspective and a true sense of history!

    Blame the liberal education!

    • William Ripskull

      Yeah, according to the modern liberal, only white Europeans ever invaded, enslaved and destroyed an indigenous population.

      • Moshe Feder

        It’s so easy to score cheap points with half truths, eh William?

        Of course the indigenes were as warlike as the European invaders. The difference was that they made no pretense about what they did.

        The Europeans, on the other hand, slaughtered, raped, and enslaved while claiming to be superior people interested in saving souls. They were masters of cynical hypocrisy, a tradition upheld by Republicans like Brett Kavanaugh to this day.

        • OWilson

          Maybe they were a little superior?

          The guy running for USSC is not named Running Bull! :)

  • Joe Dozer

    Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, got to have Star Wars….

  • John C

    Interesting that an entire complex civilization developed, cleared the jungle for agriculture and living space, then was completely reclaimed and hidden by reforestation. It shows the tenacity and resilience of nature.

    Also interesting that you don’t see equivalent large scale cities and supporting agricultural areas in North America – none north of the Aztecs. I wonder why that was?

    • dondehoff

      Why? I might suggest that there was in intervening “Ice Age”, that precluded human habitation. There is still much evidence of all of that ice, such as the Grand Canyon , Colorado River, Great Lakes, Rivers, etc.

      • John C

        The most recent Ice Age was 10,000 or so years ago, long before the Meso American civilizations developed.

        • dondehoff

          John, you are correct, I should have said, “the effects of prior ice-age issues and other geological and time related events.” Thanks.


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