Photos unearth lost mega cities
MORE than 60,000 structures that were hidden for centuries underneath the jungle in Guatemala have been discovered, changing everything we thought we knew about the Maya civilisation.
Researchers uncovered the vast, interconnected network of ancient cities using technology called LiDAR (light detection and ranging) in what's been hailed as a "major breakthrough".
They used the technology to map 2100 square kilometres of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Peten region of Guatemala, and then removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the landscape.
This revealed a huge system of ruins far more complex than what has widely been believed by Maya specialists, including highways connecting cities and quarries, and complex irrigation and terracing systems supporting masses of workers.
"The LiDAR 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 Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who took part in the project.
While it was previously believed that sparsely populated and scattered city states abounded in Central America, the research shows it was actually an advanced civilisation, at its peak 1200 years ago.
Most experts had estimated the population at around 5 million, now researchers believe it could have been much greater at 10-15 million. That includes many who were living in low-lying swampy areas that had been previously thought to have been uninhabitable.
"This was a civilisation that was literally moving mountains," co-researcher Marcello Canuto said.
"We've had this western conceit that complex civilisations can't flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilisations 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."
Another surprising finding was the defensive walls, fortresses and terraces, showing warfare was actually "large-scale and systematic, and endured over many years", not only towards the end of the civilisation.
Thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters were also found in the images.
Led by the PACUNAM Foundation in Guatemala, the project the biggest of its type using LiDAR data. The three-year project will eventually map more than 14,000 square kilometres of Guatemala.
The researchers are also exploring just who the rulers of the vast society were, including an obscure royal dynasty known as the Snake Kings who dominated the Maya world. Previously unknown, new evidence points to the Snake Kings ruling from Mexico and Belize through to Guatemala. They are believed to have conquered Tikal in 562, the greatest Maya city ever and now a popular tourist area.
The LiDAR survey has also uncovered a previously unknown pyramid in the centre of Tikal, an important discovery, as well as evidence the city is up to four times larger than previously known.
- The National Geographic's Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings, which explores this research, will premiere on March 6.