Thousands of previously unknown ancient Maya structures, pyramids, palaces and causeways have been revealed in Guatemala following an investigation by a team of worldwide archaeologists using ground-penetrating laser technology.
"We've had this western conceit that complex civilizations can't flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die", Marcello Canuto, an archaeologist with Tulane University, explains.
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Most of the 60,000 structures found are thought to be stone platforms that would have supported the average Maya home.
"Their agriculture is much more intensive and therefore sustainable than we thought, and they were cultivating every inch of the land", said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Research Assistant Professor at Tulane University, noting the ancient Mayas partly drained swampy areas that haven't been considered worth farming since. The flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs.
The scientists found more than 810 square miles (2,100 sq km) in northern Peten. Their descendants still live in the area.
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The earliest Maya settlements were built in about 1,000 B.C. and most major Maya cities had fallen into ruin by about 900 A.D. The civilization reached its peak in what is present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Belize, El Salvador and Honduras between 250 and 950 B.C.
Garrison noted that unlike some other ancient cultures, whose fields, roads and outbuildings have been destroyed by subsequent generations of farming, the jungle grew over abandoned Maya fields and structures, both hiding and preserving them. The project has produced the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research. LIDAR (light and radar) is a technology that's being put to use in a variety of ways in the modern world, including aiding automated robots and cars in navigating their surroundings.
In a way, the structures were hiding in plain sight.
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"In that kind of environment where you can't see [a few feet in front of yourself], it's very hard to piece that all together", Garrison said.