Massive Mayan ruins found in Guatemala

Mapping the Maya landscape

The researchers were using LiDAR technology, which is short for "light detection and ranging". Laser technology revealed houses, palaces, elevated highways, and defensive fortifications beneath the forest canopy.

Archaeologists believe the cutting-edge technology will change the way the world will see the Maya civilization, reports the BBC. Researchers have long known that Mayan settlements were present in the area, but the massive scale of the cities that were once teeming with activity was hugely miscalculated. Based on the data, researchers believe that the region supported an advanced civilization on par with that of ancient Greece or China, rather than a series of isolated city-states. Their findings show that the region's pre-Columbian civilization was "far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed", according to National Geographic.

It is a sophisticated remote sensing technology that uses laser light to densely sample the surface of the earth. However, there are also large new cities with pyramids and palaces in the data as well. The flow of water was meticulously planned and controlled via canals, dikes, and reservoirs. The highly accurate measurements from millions of laser pulses are used to produce a detailed three-dimensional image of the ground surface topography.

The method has been used elsewhere, including around the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

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The LiDAR survey in Guatemala was the first part of a three-year project led by a cultural heritage preservation organization called the PACUNAM Foundation. But the effort in Guatemala is the largest such project ever undertaken.

The incredible discovery is only part of a larger, three-year LiDAR initiative with PACUNAM which plans to map over 5,000 square miles (12,900 sq km) of the country's lowlands. "I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology", said Stephen Houston, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology at Brown University. Previous estimates put the Mayan people's population at around 5 million, but now it's possible that there were 10 to 15 million of them.

The earliest Maya settlements were constructed around 1,000 B.C., and most major Maya cities collapsed by 900 A.D. The cause of the collapse remains the focus of intense academic debate.

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