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Lasers Reveal 60,000 Ancient Maya Structures in Guatemala

Lasers Reveal 60,000 Ancient Maya Structures in Guatemala

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The largest-ever survey of a region from the Maya civilization has located over 60,000 previously unknown structures in northern Guatemala. The survey, conducted with the help of lasers, challenges long-held assumptions that this area was poorly connected and sparsely populated.

The structures researchers identified include farms, houses and defensive fortifications, as well as 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals connecting large cities across the civilization’s central lowlands. Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist who uses satellite technology, had this reaction on Twitter when preliminary images became public: “This is HOLY [expletive] territory.” (Parcak was not involved with this study).

The ancient Maya civilization stretched from southern Mexico down to Guatemala and Belize, flourishing between 1000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. The recent study focused on 830 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, Guatemala. Scientists used a laser technology called lidar, or light detection and ranging, to penetrate the thick tree canopies in the area and discover archaeological remains beneath them.

Lidar can point researchers in the right direction, but it doesn’t find everything under the trees. That’s why researchers also needed to excavate areas where lidar identified ancient structures. The Washington Post reports that “the lidar analysis was conservative—[researchers] found the predicted structures, and then some.”

Past archaeologists believed the central Maya lowlands in northern Guatemala consisted of small, disconnected city-states ruled by warring elites. More recently, archaeologists have theorized that the area was more interconnected and densely populated that originally assumed.

“Even though the latter view has been ascendant in recent years, the absence of regional data has left the debate unresolved,” write the researchers in an article about their study published this week in Science. Now, they write that their research provides “robust support” for the view that the central lowlands had a complex structure and supported a large population.

“Every Maya city was bigger and more populated than we previously thought,” archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, one of the study’s authors, told Science News.

The newly-discovered structures, together with the modified agricultural terrain the study also identified, leads researchers to estimate that 7 million to 11 million Maya people lived in northern Guatemala during the civilization’s Late Classic Period from 650 to 800 A.D. The survey, the authors write, “compels a reevaluation of Maya demography, agriculture, and political economy.”

Jungle-Penetrating Lasers Reveal Thousands Of Ancient Mayan Structures

Hidden below Guatemala's lush Petén rainforest lies an ancient city not touched by humans for more than 1,000 years, but in its heyday it was home to millions of Mesoamericans who built a sophisticated, sprawling empire. Now, for the first time, a team of international archaeologists has discovered and mapped tens of thousands of ancient structures using airborne light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR) over 2,100 square kilometers (810 square miles) of the nation’s lowland.

LiDAR was first applied to this area in 2009 and focused on just the immediate surroundings of individual sites. Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 2,100 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

The international team also mapped extensive causeways and networks connecting the various urban centers, which they say highlights just how interconnected these different city centers were and how much their inhabitants were willing to invest in defensive systems in the event of warfare.

As with any new discovery, the authors conclude that their findings “generate new questions, refine targets for fieldwork, elicit regional study across continuous landscapes, and advance Maya archaeology into a bold era of research and exploration.”

Representation of the archaeological site of Naachtun, Petén, at twilight. Each ancient structure is marked by a yellow dot. L. Auld-Thomas and M. A. Canut/Science

Lasers reveal ancient Mayan civilization hiding beneath Guatemalan canopy

Feb. 2 (UPI) -- A series of LiDAR surveys has revealed some 60,000 ancient Mayan structures hiding under the jungle canopy in Guatemala.

The hundreds of houses, palaces and roads identified by the surveys have offered new insights into the sophisticated organization of the Mayan civilization at the height of their cultural and political dominance between 250 and 900 AD.

LiDAR stands for "Light Detection and Ranging." The technology uses short laser pulses to measure the distance between the airplane-mounted instrument -- which combines a laser, scanner and unique GPS receiver -- and Earth's surface.

Over several years, scientists have conducted surveys of large swaths of Central America, where thick jungles make field work difficult. The tiny laser pulses squeeze through gaps in the dense canopy. Scientists can take the data, filter out the LiDAR data and laser light that bounced off trees, and leave behind only what lies beneath the canopy.

In this case, what lies beneath are the remnants of an ancient civilization.

The surveys are forcing archaeologists to completely rethink their understanding of the Mayans.

"Everyone is seeing larger, denser sites. Everyone," Thomas Garrison, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, said in a news release. "There's a spectrum to it, for sure, but that's a universal: everyone has missed settlement in their [previous] mapping."

"Frankly, it's turning our discipline on its head," he said.

Garrison's research is responsible for the largest-ever LiDAR survey for an archaeological project. He and his team scanned some 800 square miles of Maya Biosphere Reserve in the lowlands of Guatemala.

The results revealed Mayan structures and organization at a scale underestimated by all previous studies. The Mayan people constructed massive terraces for farming, as well as canals and irrigation systems. They built highways linking dense urban centers.

"This was a civilization that was literally moving mountains," Marcello Canuto, an archaeologist at Tulane University, told National Geographic.

"We've had this western conceit that complex civilizations can't flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die," Canuto said. "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 monumental as the survey findings are, scientists say their work is only beginning. The massive datasets offer a giant map for future on-the-ground studies.

"That's the challenge now. Now we have so much data," Garrison said. "How do we handle it and how do we move forward with it? We've still got to get to those places, we've still got to check them out. It's difficult to convey how exciting this time is for us."

Hidden Ancient Mayan 'Megalopolis' With 60,000 Structures Discovered in Guatemala Using Lasers

Archaeologists in Guatemala have uncovered an unprecedented network of 60,000 ancient Mayan features such as palaces and elevated highways, according to an exclusive report by National Geographic. The discovery is being called a "megalopolis" and suggests that we've been vastly underestimating the sophistication of the Mayan civilization at the height of its power, 1,200 years ago.

Researchers owe the breakthrough to the cutting-edge remote sensing method Light Detection and Ranging, better known as LiDAR. Usually taken aerially, LiDAR recordings channel light into laser pulses that measure the distance from the air down to a given point on the surface of the Earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

These particular images covered a region of more than 800 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala. Altogether, they're the largest LiDAR data set ever to be used in archaeological research, according to National Geographic.

The interconnected network of ancient Maya cities was home to millions more people than previously thought https://t.co/0E0FafOyRR

&mdash National Geographic (@NatGeo) February 1, 2018

"The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated," Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in applying technology like LiDAR, told National Geographic.

LiDAR allowed the archaeologists to digitally erase the jungle's top canopy layer from aerial images, essentially Photoshopping them out. Without the canopy in the way, the massive pre-Colombian civilization was revealed for the first time in centuries.

What the researchers saw upends assumptions about pre-Columbian life. "We've had this Western conceit that complex civilizations can't flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die," Tulane University archaeologist Marcello Canuto, also a National Geographic Explorer, told National Geographic. "But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America. we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there."

The Mayan culture was at its peak from roughly 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., according to the MesoAmerican Research Center. During that era, known as the Maya Classic period, the civilization was twice the size of medieval England&mdashand much more densely populated than previous researchers had suspected, according to National Geographic.

In the past, when still limited to ground-based study, archaeologists had believed the Mayan civilization in Central America to be diffuse and loosely connected. But the megalopolis suggests that it was actually more comparable to civilizations of ancient Greece or China. The LiDAR scans showed densely packed urban centers, sophisticated irrigation systems and advanced engineering achievements, like highways that had been raised off the ground so they could still be used during the rainy season.

"LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy," Francisco Estrada-Belli, also a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer, told National Geographic. "We'll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we're seeing."

Lasers Reveal 60,000 Ancient Maya Structures in Guatemala - HISTORY

PACUNAM/Estrada-Belli The jungle of northern Guatemala where the lidar survey was conducted.

Through the use of LiDAR laser technology, researchers in Guatemala have discovered over 61,000 ancient Mayan structures. These yielded new information about the agriculture, lifestyle, and day-to-day life of the Mayan people.

The study, recently published in Science, involved a survey of 830 square miles of Mayan territory led by researchers from Tulane University.

The findings specifically challenged long-held assumptions that the region was sparsely populated and that small, Mayan cities were cut off from one another. Researchers surveyed each square meter with 15 laser pulses, the Washington Post reported.

Lidar technology, or light detection and ranging, uncovered such startling new information because it is able to penetrate the thick, forest canopy to reveal what was hidden below in a way that researchers were unable to do previously.

Lidar operates under the same principles as radar, except it uses laser pulses instead of radio waves. The laser light is unresponsive to vegetation but cannot penetrate harder surfaces like stone, and so laser light will bounce back when it comes in contact with a built environment.

Luke Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM A lidar image depicting the newly-discovered range of features. The long building in the top right is part of the so-called E Group complex, which largely dates to before 500 B.C. Across the valley from this building is an acropolis which is likely much younger.

“Since LiDAR technology is able to pierce through thick forest canopy and map features on the earth’s surface, it can be used to produce ground maps that enable us to identify human-made features on the ground, such as walls, roads or buildings,” Marcello Canuto, the director of the Middle America Research Institute at Tulane, said in a statement.

Thanks to the new technology, the researchers were able to discover 61,480 total structures in the area like houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids. This led researchers to believe that at the height of the region in the Late Classic period (650-800 CE), the population reached between seven and 11 million people.

PACUNAM/Estrada-Belli Lidar analysis showing the hidden structures.

The lasers also revealed over 106 square kilometers (about 41 square miles) of roadways, canals, and infrastructure which connected the region’s various cities to more rural areas.

“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, a research assistant professor at Tulane said in a statement.

The idea that the Maya were a more complex civilization than previously believed has been gaining favor over the past few years. According to Science News, some researchers have argued that slash-and-burn farming techniques were popular during the Mayan Classic-era and may have contributed to their downfall.

However, the study revealed that the Maya were more sophisticated in regards to agriculture than once thought. The lasers uncovered 362 square kilometers (about 140 square miles) of terraces and modified agricultural terrain, plus 952 square kilometers (368 square miles) of viable farmland.

Despite this groundbreaking discovery, there is still a lot of work to be done. The researchers had to go on the ground in some parts of the surveyed area to confirm the lidar data, according to the Washington Post.

Lidar might not be the perfect technology just yet, but so far it has not only opened our eyes to tens of thousands of new structures but challenged how we view an entire civilization.

Next, check out these medieval Cambodian cities that were discovered with the same laser technology. Then, take a look at the lost Mayan “Megaopolis” that was also uncovered in the Guatemalan jungles.

Lasers Reveal 60,000 Ancient Maya Structures in Guatemala - HISTORY

ith the help of a pioneering laser-mapping technology, researchers have made a major archaeological discovery in Guatemala. According to Tom Clynes, who broke the story in a National Geographic exclusive published last week, more than 60,000 Maya structures—among them houses, fortifications, and causeways—have been identified amid the jungles of the Petén region, shaking up what experts thought they knew about the complexity and scope of Maya civilization.

The breakthrough discovery was made using Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, which works by beaming millions of laser pulses from a plane to the ground below. As the wavelengths bounce back, they are measured to create detailed topographical maps. In Guatemala, LiDAR allowed a team of researchers, supported by the PACUNAM Foundation, to map more than 800 square miles of land obscured by dense foliage.

“I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology,” as Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who collaborated on the project, put it in an interview with the BBC.

Researchers have long thought that Maya cities were largely isolated and self-sustaining. But the LiDAR scans indicate that the Maya civilization was in fact interconnected and sophisticated, not unlike the ancient civilizations of Greece and China. For example, the team discovered a network of wide, elevated causeways that linked Maya cities and may have been used to facilitate trade between different regions.

The scans also suggest that the Maya civilization was much larger than previously believed estimates had placed the population at around 5 million during the Maya classical period, which spanned from about 250-900 A.D. But the new data suggests that the population may have been as large as 10 to 15 million people, “including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable,” as National Geographic Explorer Francisco Estrada-Belli, who was also affiliated with the project, tells Clynes.

Most of the newly discovered structures appear to be stone platforms that would have supported the pole-and-thatch homes that most Maya lived in, according to Stephanie Pappas of Live Science. The survey also revealed a surprising number of defense systems from walls, to ramparts, to fortresses.

Clearing the way

Seeing the evidence of that sprawling population requires stripping away the forest &mdash at least virtually. The new survey used a technology called lidar, which stands for "light detection and ranging." It works by beaming laser pulses at the ground &mdash in this case, from airplanes &mdash and measuring the wavelengths as they bounce back to create a detailed three-dimensional image of the stuff on the ground. It's a little bit like the sonar that bats use to hunt, except it uses light waves instead of sound.

"Lidar is magic," Lucero told Live Science. In the densely forested Maya lowlands of Guatemala, it's easy to walk right by an archaeological mound or feature and miss it entirely. Lidar maps the topography with such precision that rectangular features &mdash like roads, house foundations and plazas &mdash just "pop out," said David Stuart, a University of Texas at Austin anthropologist who has followed the new lidar mapping project closely.

Garrison's experience bears that out. He and his colleagues have been excavating a Maya site called El Zotz in northern Guatemala, painstakingly mapping the landscape for years. The lidar survey revealed a 30-foot-long (9 meters) fortification wall that the team had never noticed before. [Images: Maya Maize Secrets Revealed in Tikal Soil]

"Maybe, eventually, we would have gotten to this hilltop where this fortress is, but I was within about 150 feet [46 m] of it in 2010 and didn't see anything," he told Live Science.

Garrison visited the dirt wall in person in June, and he and his team are now seeking funding to excavate there, he said. The discovery of the fortification suggests that Maya warfare was not a matter of small, intermittent skirmishes, but serious battles.

"This is investment in the landscape," he said of the wall.

Experts discover hidden ancient Maya structures in Guatemala

Experts using an aerial high-tech laser scanner have discovered thousands of ancient Maya structures hidden under the thick jungle of northern Guatemala, officials said Thursday.

Some 60,000 structures were found over the past two years in a scan of a region in the northern department of El Peten, which borders Mexico and Belize, said Marcello Canuto, one of the project's top investigators.

These findings are a "revolution in Maya archeology," Canuto said.

The new discoveries in this Central American country include urban centers with sidewalks, homes, terraces, ceremonial centers, irrigation canals and fortifications, said Canuto, an archaeologist at Tulane University in the United States.

Among the finds was a 30-meter high pyramid that had been earlier identified as a natural hill in Tikal, Guatemala's premier archaeological site. Also discovered in Tikal: a series of pits and a 14 kilometer-long wall.

The Maya civilization reached its height in what is present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Belize, El Salvador and Honduras between 250 and 950 CE.

Researchers now believe that the Maya had a population of 10 million, which is "much higher" than previous estimates, Canuto said.

The project relied on a remote sensing method known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Aircraft with a LiDAR scanner produced three-dimensional maps of the surface by using light in the form of pulsed laser linked to a GPS system.

The technology helped researchers discover sites much faster than using traditional archeological methods.

"Now it is no longer necessary to cut through the jungle to see what's under it," said Canuto.

Details of the research will appear in a documentary to air on February 11 on the National Geographic channel, said Minister of Culture and Sports Jose Luis Chea.

More Than 60,000 Ancient Structures Discovered in Guatemalan Jungle Using (Frikkin) Lasers

How many ruins of the ancient world remain undiscovered? While we marvel at the monuments that have remained ‘in sight’ down through the ages, such as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza, it’s worth remembering that there are still many ancient sites that are still hidden, whether by dirt, water, or jungle.

In the latter case, archaeologists have begun ‘uncovering’ some of these lost cities using something more high tech than a shovel. With LiDAR (‘Light Detection and Ranging’ – a remote sensing method that uses pulsed lasers to measure the distance to Earth), they can construct a 3D digital map of the location and see through the jungle and locate man-made structures previously obscured from human eyes.

Last week a paper in the journal Science announced the discovery of more than 60,000 “ancient structures” that had previously been hidden from view under the lush foliage of the tropical Guatemalan jungle:

Lowland Maya civilization flourished from 1000 BCE to 1500 CE in and around the Yucatan Peninsula. Known for its sophistication in writing, art, architecture, astronomy, and mathematics, this civilization is still obscured by inaccessible forest, and many questions remain about its makeup.

In 2016, the Pacunam Lidar Initiative (PLI)undertook the largest lidar survey to date of the Maya region, mapping 2144 km2 of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala.

Analysis identified 61,480 ancient structures in the survey region, resulting in a density of 29 structures/km 2 .

The researchers extrapolated from these figures to (conservatively) estimate that, during the Late Classic period, there could have been at least 2,724,396 structures over an area of 95,000 km 2 in the central Maya Lowlands, with a population between 7 million and 11 million.

Comparison showing how LiDAR can identify structures beneath dense foliage

Furthermore, they found evidence for structures and systems supporting an “agricultural economy of great complexity that would have been crucial in feeding this large population: the landscape “was heavily modified for intensive agriculture”, with grids of drainage channels, some kilometres long, as well as reservoirs, terraces and walls.

Overall, the researchers concluded that the data collected…

…unambiguously support the notion that the lowland Maya constructed a variable and contentious landscape in which a regionally interconnected network of densely populated and defended cities was sustained by an array of agricultural practices that optimized land productivity, resource diversity, and sustainability on a much grander scale than previously thought.

Maya Civilization: Unprecedented Survey Reveals More Than 60,000 Ancient Features Hidden in Guatemalan Jungle

Unprecedented research has revealed fascinating new details about the Maya civilization&mdashwhich dominated the region covering what is now southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras for more than 2,500 years.

An international team of researchers spearheaded by the non-profit consortium PACUNAM (Foundation for Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage) employed a revolutionary imaging technique known as LiDAR to survey more than 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of tropical forest in northern Guatemala&mdashan area known as the Maya Lowlands&mdashuncovering thousands of ancient structures. The findings will force us to reevaluate several aspects of the mysterious ancient civilization, experts say.

LiDAR makes use of instruments fitted on aircraft that fire pulses of laser light towards the ground 900,000 times per second, enabling the creation of detailed 3D maps that reveal the topography of the land and any ancient man-made features.

Much of the Maya Lowlands&mdashthe demographic and political heartland of the Classic Maya culture&mdashare heavily forested, making on-the-ground research and the discovery of new sites very difficult. Fully mapping and characterizing a single settlement can take many years. As a result, our understanding of many aspects of Maya urban civilization, land use and socio-political complexity remains limited.

With LiDAR, however, researchers can essentially "see through" the jungle canopy revealing features&mdashsuch as ancient structures or roads&mdashthat are normally hidden by vegetation. This is possible because a small percentage of the laser pulses&mdasharound five percent&mdashare able to penetrate through to the ground. These investigations can be conducted far more quickly than on-the-ground fieldwork (although this is still crucial).

The latest work&mdashpart of an ongoing project known as the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative (PLI)&mdashis the largest LiDAR survey of the Lowland region to date and includes the iconic ruins of the ancient city of Tikal. The results of the survey and analysis of the data collected have been published in the journal Science.

Significantly, the researchers identified a staggering 61,480 ancient structures, spread between cities and hinterland, revealing interconnected urban settlements with extensive and sophisticated infrastructural development.

"[The key findings] are the scale and complexity of Maya urbanism and agriculture," Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Maya archaeologist and author of the latest study, told Newsweek. "We were able to appreciate the size and density of Maya cities at a scale that had not been seen before."

Analysis of this data suggested that between 7 and 11 million people lived throughout the Maya Lowlands during the Late Classic Period (650-800 C.E.)&mdasha figure that is broadly in agreement with previous estimates. This ancient population was unevenly distributed across the central lowlands with varying degrees of urbanization.

To sustain such a population for many centuries, intensive agriculture would be required, but to date, evidence of this has been lacking. The LiDAR survey reveals, however, that a great deal of the wetlands throughout the region were heavily modified for agricultural use. In fact, the researchers identified 362 square kilometers (140 square miles) of terraces, or otherwise modified terrain, and another 952 square kilometers of viable farmland.

Furthermore, they found evidence of monumental water management systems, roadways connecting distant cities and smaller populations, and extensive defensive infrastructure. This substantial investment in such infrastructure highlights both the connectivity of the cities and hinterlands, while also indicating a high incidence of conflict in the Maya Lowlands, the study authors say.

According to the researchers, the new data helps to address important debates about Maya civilization in the Lowland region.

For example, some experts have suggested that the Maya Lowlands contained small city-state centers ruled by warring elites. In this view, these settlements were supported by a relatively sparse population practicing rotational farming techniques&mdashwhere land is cleared for cultivation and left to regenerate&mdashwith only a limited use of intensive agriculture.

In contrast, other views suggest that there was a regional network of densely populated, highly-integrated cities that depended on heavy labor both inside and outside the urban centers.

"Even though the latter view has been ascendant in recent years, the absence of regional data has left the debate unresolved," the authors wrote in the study.

The new results, however, provide support for the latter model, they say, while also opening up important new avenues for future field research in the region.

"These results show that many theories on the Maya are about to change and at a fast pace if we continue to acquire LiDAR data and share those data among collaborating scholars in real time," Estrada-Belli said. "So far, we have been able to discover many aspects of Maya civilization we had not appreciated&mdashthe size of their cities, the sophistication of their agricultural engineering, as well as the scale of their wars. Many more discoveries will be made if archaeologists have access to LiDAR-generated Big Data."

In fact, LiDAR has already produced impressive results in the field of Maya archaeology. Earlier this year, the PLI announced the discovery of an unprecedented network of ancient Maya features in Guatemala, including palaces, elevated highways and thousands of houses, which, much like the finds in the latest research, had been hidden below the jungle for centuries. These important results indicated that the Maya civilization was far more complex and interconnected than previously thought.

For Anabel Ford, a Maya expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Department of Anthropology, surveys using LiDAR will enable researchers to understand the mystery of how the Maya lived in harmony with their their tropical forest environment.

"My work has demonstrated that the ancient Maya were able to work with nature," she said in comments provided to Newsweek. "They were forest gardeners using observational skills developed over centuries, scheduling their annual planting and reaping cycle, their clearing and growing cycle, and their perennial management cycle, to work with the forest."

"That is why the dominant plants that blanket the landscape are all useful for fruit, wood, roofs, construction, products, oils, medicine, incense, poison," she said. "In short, everything for daily needs can be found within the immediate garden spaces or a short walk away. I hope that the results of LiDAR [surveys] will help reframe the question of the Maya and their forest."

While Ford praises the benefits of LiDAR, she stresses that field work is still a vital to validate features on the ground.

"For archaeology, LiDAR presents an extremely accurate view of the geography and topography of the landscape," she said. "This is for any landscape, but in the case of forests, and the Maya forest in particular, it is like a magic wand &mdashan expensive one!"

"However at the site scale, the features that you may identify as architecture&mdasha small house, a group of structures&mdashcannot be certain without field validation. The big stuff is clear, but the subtle uses of the landscape by the ancient agricultural Maya Civilization requires verification."

The Maya civilization peaked around 1,200 years ago before experiencing a decline, surviving right up until 1697 when the last city fell to Spanish conquistadors. The Maya were notable for creating the only fully developed writing system in pre-Columbian America, as well as their sophistication in architecture, art, mathematics, and astronomy.

While the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica stripped away most of the defining features of independent Maya civilization, millions of Maya people still inhabit the Yucatán peninsula and their culture persists to this day.

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Francisco Estrada-Belli and Anabel Ford.

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