Howard Nowes - 10/10/2018



LIDAR, a once-top secret US military surveillance technology for surveying and detecting the topography of long-lost structures buried underground has now become declassified, with astounding new findings for those of us in the arts and sciences.  We now know that Mayan civilization was vastly more abundant and complex than we ever previously imagined, with epic, sprawling cities, including one such city buried just beneath the top layer of the jungle in Guatemala that was home to an estimated 7 to 11 million people, matching New York City in population and density.

Spanning across vast expanses of desolate green jungle, which were previously believed to have been pristine and untouched by human civilization, researchers have discovered a dense urban network of cities that resembles the East Coast of America in terms of its complexity and the sheer volume of architectural structures and population.  We are learning that currently known Mayan sites discovered through traditional archaeological exploration make up only about 10-20% of the volume of Mayan civilization, with the remainder of Mayan civilization still buried deep underground.

LIDAR technology measures the distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light and then measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor.  The variation in the time it takes the laser to return to the measuring device, as well as the wavelength of the returning beam reveals the depth of the surface being measured.  Once a surface is scanned by LIDAR, sophisticated computer software can translate the measurements into a 3D virtual reality world simulating the previously unseen underground terrain, as is shown from a virtual reality simulation of a Mayan city underneath what is now Northern Guatemala.

Originating from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, LIDAR, which was a merged acronym for light and radar, was used to measure clouds, and later used during the Apollo 15 mission to map the surface of the moon.  It may also have been used by the US Military to survey terrain in foreign enemy territory which was not reachable by soldiers on foot.

The applications for archaeology and the study of antiquity are exciting, and a whole new field of potential research is now open that was not previously available.  One compelling and comprehensive study of ancient Mayan cities can be found in the journal Science, published this September, in which a team of seasoned researchers at Tulane University were able to distinguish 61,480 ancient structures in the same region (Northern Guatemala), which could have held a population of roughly 10 million people during the Late Classic Period of the Mayan Empire (650-800).  The team also identified 106 square kilometers of causeways interconnecting the various urban centers.  According to the researchers, these causeways were used for both infrastructure building activities and transporting Mayan soldiers for war.

The learning process for discovering more about the Mayans from these maps is still in its infancy due to the sheer volume of the information collected by LIDAR scans, and the shortage of qualified archaeologists to study and interpret the data and form new hypothesis and conclusions about Mayan civilization.

We look forward to learning more about the Mayans as this research evolves over time.


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