home to temples and palaces, is one of the best known Maya
sites in northern Guatemala. Credit Justin Lane for The New
They were hidden there, all this time, under the cover of tree
canopies in the jungles of northern Guatemala: tens of thousands
of structures built by the Maya over a millennium ago.
Not far from the sites tourists already know, like the towering
temples of the ancient city of Tikal, laser technology has uncovered
about 60,000 homes, palaces, tombs and even highways in the humid
The findings suggested an ancient society of such density and
interconnectedness that even the most experienced archaeologists
"Everywhere that we looked, there was more settlement than we
expected," said Thomas
Garrison, a National Geographic explorer and an archaeologist
at Ithaca College. "We knew there was going to be more, but the
scale of it really blew our minds."
Researchers found the structures by shooting lasers down from
planes to pierce the thick foliage and paint a 3-D picture of the
ground below. The technology is called Light Detection and Ranging,
highlighted area is the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala.
(The bar at the upper left represents 200 miles.)
The method has been used elsewhere, including around
the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. But this lidar project is
the largest ever undertaken. More than 800 square miles of the Maya
Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala's Petén region have been mapped,
according to an
exclusive report by National Geographic, which is airing a Feb.
6 television special about the project.
"This world, which was lost to this jungle, is all of a sudden
revealed in the data," said Albert
Yu-Min Lin, an engineer and National Geographic explorer who
worked on the television special. "And what you thought was this
massively understood, studied civilization is all of a sudden brand
The lasers are only the first step, he added, noting that he
and archaeologists still had to trek through jungles to verify the
data while contending with thick undergrowth, poisonous snakes,
swarms of killer bees and the odd scorpion.
data highlighted about 60,000 structures that had been hidden
in the jungle for hundreds of years. Credit Wild Blue Media/National
The project was started by Pacunam, a Guatemalan nonprofit organization,
and carried out with help from the National Center for Airborne
Laser Mapping, which is based at the University of Houston. The
lidar technology essentially allows researchers to spot bumps in
the landscape. Most of the ruins look like rocky mounds even
in person, and to the naked eye but experts can often identify
a collapsed quarry, palace or street.
With help from supporters, Pacunam has spent more than $600,000
on this first phase of the lidar project, said Marianne Hernandez,
the president of the board. The organization hopes to use the laser
technology to map the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve.
But it is not only about protecting cultural treasures, Ms.
Hernandez said. The project is part of a broad push to fight climate
change, generate tourism dollars and prevent illegal activities
like border trafficking and deforestation in protected areas.
"This is a Guatemalan effort," she said. "We need to marry the
interest in pursuing scientific stories with our interest in finding
a sustainable model for the area."
Ms. Hernandez began planning the project in 2015 with archaeologists
Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at
Tulane University. The laser-equipped planes flew over Guatemala
in 2016. And when Dr. Canuto and his students finally saw the preliminary
data about a year ago, "We could not peel our eyes off the T.V.
screen," he said.
"It's being blind, and then being able to see."
above, the ancient city of Tikal can be seen with the naked
eye. But more structures are hidden in the jungles nearby.
Credit Wild Blue Media/National Geographic
The Maya culture was known for its sophisticated approach to
agriculture, arts and astronomy. The peak era for the civilization,
which some archaeologists refer to as the Classic Period, is generally
considered to have lasted from around A.D. 250 to 900.
The total population at that time was once estimated to be a
few million, said Diane Davies, an
archaeologist and Maya specialist based in the United Kingdom.
But in light of the new lidar data, she said it could now be closer
to 10 million.
Dr. Davies was not involved in the lidar project but considered
it "really big, sensational news." She said the data should encourage
people not only to re-evaluate Maya civilization, but also to learn
"To have such a large number of people living at such a high
level for such a long period of time, it really proves the fact
that these people were highly developed, and also quite environmentally
conscientious," she said.
Among the structures uncovered were roads, built wide and raised
high above the wetlands to connect fields to farmers and markets
to metropolises. There were also small dwellings, quarries and intricate
irrigation systems. "We're seeing the spaces in between, and that's
where really interesting stuff was happening," Dr. Garrison said.
He added that in addition to changing people's perception of
the Maya culture, lidar represented "a sea change" in the field
"I don't think you see a lot of discoveries happening across
the sciences right now that sort of turn a discipline on its head,"
he said. "It's exciting to know that it can still happen."
courtesy of National Geographic