LiDAR Unearths 60,000 Ancient Maya Structures in Guatemala

Using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology researchers of Ithaca College uncovered thousands of new Maya structures previously undetected beneath smothering vegetation.

The survey of encompassed several major Maya sites, including the largest at Tikal, and El Zotz have been surveyed and these sites cover the area of 2,100 square kilometers.

A comparison of LiDAR data showing the ancient Maya site of El Zotz covered in trees, and with the trees digitally removed. Image : Ithaca College

The LiDAR mapping detected more than 60,000 previously unknown structures in total, from unknown pyramids, palace structures, terraced fields, roadways, defensive walls and towers, and houses. Archaeologists are realizing that the ancient population centers they’ve spent decades studying are much bigger than they speculated.

The laser pierces through the smallest gaps in the vegetation to record the lay of the land below with remarkable accuracy. The resulting data can be tweaked to filter out the trees, thus offering an unencumbered view of everything else on the surface.

The technology is a boon for surveys in jungles like those in lowland Guatemala, where dense canopy hinders other methods of aerial survey and thick undergrowth can conceal the relationship even between known structures.

“In that kind of environment where you can’t see [a few feet in front of yourself], it’s very hard to piece that all together,” Thomas Garrison, assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, said in a press release.

“In a swampy area of rolling hillocks rising from the muck, for example: “You have this idea that there’s some little stuff on the hills, but the LiDAR lets you see it in its totality.”

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