In what has been touted as a crucial moment pertaining to Mesoamerican archaeology, researchers have been able to discern the remnants of around a whopping 60,000 Maya structures – ranging from houses, palaces, pyramids to causeways and fortifications, all hidden within the mysterious depths of the Guatemalan jungles. The incredible discovery of these man-made features was made with the aid of LiDAR (‘Light Detection And Ranging’), with the technology making it possible to digitally remove the overgrown tree canopies, thus revealing the sheer extent of Maya ‘sprawls’. In essence, according to some experts, the identification might revise the estimates of the Maya population in the area by multiple factors.
The fascinating archaeological project was conducted by a consortium of researchers, supported by the PACUNAM Foundation. Their research and assessment were focused on the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, encompassing around 2,100 sq miles spread over ten different sites. This aerial photography scope essentially translated to the largest LiDAR dataset ever compiled for archaeology, and such gives credence to the hypothesis that the Mayans (in their apical stage, circa 1200-years ago) achieved urban sophistication that is comparable to the levels of ancient ‘old world’ civilizations like the Chinese, Indians, and Greeks. And all of these infrastructural and residential features were constructed without the help of wheels. Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist, who also took part in the research, said –
…this was a civilization that was literally moving mountains. We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die. But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.
As for the actual physical ruins unveiled by the LiDAR survey, the archaeologists mostly came across tens of thousands of mound-like structures that were possibly used as the stone foundations atop which the Mayans built their basic pole-and-thatch style dwellings. However, beyond just average residences, the researchers also identified bigger constructions that probably comprised a network of pyramids, palaces, and causeways. Pertaining to the latter, the causeways with their engineered elevations were critical to the drainage of rainwater, thus leading to better connectivity and maintenance over longer periods. Simply put these elevated highways formed the core of the nexus for both trade and religious processions that flourished between the Maya urban areas.
Now historically, the Maya culture at its peak stage (circa 250 – 900 AD), encompassed a territory that was twice the size of medieval England, and yet boasted more density in terms of population. In that regard, the general estimate of the Maya population during this period is roughly equated to around 5 million. However, these newer discoveries and insights on the concentrated urban sprawls and their networks might lead to a drastic revision of the previous figures. Estrada-Belli, who directs a multi-disciplinary archaeological project at Holmul, in Guatemala, said –
Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million. With this new data, it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.
Lastly, since we are talking about uninhabitable areas, the LiDAR survey also did reveal blank spots in and around many of the examined jungle zones. But given the Maya proclivity for efficient land use and effective landscaping, it naturally raises the question – why were such spots relegated in favor other proximate areas? David Stuart, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, who also followed the new LiDAR mapping project closely, said –
It’s going to change our views of the population and just on how the Maya lived on that landscape. By having this more accurate picture of what is there, we can start to talk about community organization, agricultural systems land use, roadways, and communication.