Breakthrough Discovery Reveals Mayan ‘Megalopolis’ Below Guatemalan Jungle

February 3, 2018 Updated: February 3, 2018

Advanced aerial mapping technology has led to what National Geographic is calling a “major breakthrough” in Mayan archeology–the discovery of tens of thousands of previously undetected houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other man-made features—hidden by a thick jungle canopy in Guatemala, eluding the human eye for centuries.

Researchers hail the find as highly significant because it suggests that millions more people likely lived there than was previously believed. Moreover, the complexity of the discovered structures is strong evidence that the region boasted a more advanced civilization, closer to sophisticated cultures like ancient Greece or China.

A novel technique was used in the research, involving bouncing laser beams off the ground, making it possible to detect what lies underneath dense jungle foliage.

“The LiDAR [Light Detection And Ranging] images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist and National Geographic explorer, as reported by National Geographic.

The discovery was made in the Paten region of Guatemala, and includes such complex structures as industrial-sized agricultural fields and irrigation canals.

The report estimates that a vast population of 10 million might have lived within the Maya Lowlands, which would justify such an extensive food production infrastructure.

“That is two to three times more [inhabitants] than people were saying there were,” said Marcello A. Canuto, a professor of anthropology at Tulane University, according to a report by the Guardian.

The research showed that the ancient Mayans modified their environment much more extensively than previously believed. There was even evidence of swamp drainage to maximally exploit nearby land.

“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, the Guardian noted.

Another conclusion that impresses researchers is the evidence of a highly organized workforce to build the defense and agricultural systems.

“There’s state involvement here, because we see large canals being dug that are redirecting natural water flows,” said Garrison.

The mapping covered an area of 810 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) and detected about 60,000 individual structures, including four major ceremonial centers with plazas and pyramids.

Continued reliance on ground-based research would have likely meant that many of the finds would have continued to elude archeogists.

Garrison said that without the support of aerial technology, he might have missed a road that was directly underfoot.

“I found it, but if I had not had the Lidar and known that that’s what it was, I would have walked right over it, because of how dense the jungle is,” Garrison told.

The foliage is said to have served a dual purpose–to hide and to protect.

“The jungle, which has hindered us in our discovery efforts for so long, has actually worked as this great preservative tool of the impact the culture had across the landscape,” said Garrison.

The discovery was announced on Thursday, Feb. 1, by an alliance of U.S., European, and Guatemalan archaeologists affiliated with Guatemala’s Mayan Heritage and Nature Foundation.

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