(CNN) With the dense vegetation of northern Guatemala’s rainforests hiding their 2,000-year-old remains, the full extent of early Maya life was once impossible to appreciate. But laser technology has helped researchers uncover a previously unknown 650-square-mile (1,683-square-kilometer) Maya site that offers startling new insights into the ancient Mesoamericans and their civilization.
Researchers discovered the massive site in the Mirador Calakmul Karst Basin in northern Guatemala using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, a laser mapping system that can detect structures beneath the dense tree canopy. The resulting map showed an area composed of 964 settlements divided into 417 interconnected Maya cities, towns and villages.
By using LiDAR technology, a laser mapping system that uses light waves to create a three-dimensional map, the researchers were able to locate structures normally hidden by the dense jungle canopy.
A 110-mile (177-kilometer) network of raised stone paths, or causeways, connecting communities shows that the early civilization housed an even more complex society than previously thought, according to a recent analysis of architectural groupings in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.
“They’re the first superhighway system in the world that we have,” said the study’s lead author Richard Hansen, a professor of anthropology at Idaho State University. “The amazing thing about (the dams) is that they bind all these cities together like a spider’s web … forming one of the earliest and first state corporations in the western hemisphere.”
Rising above the seasonal swamps and dense forest flora of the Maya lowlands, the dams formed “a web of implicit social, political, and economic interactions” with further implications for “governance strategies” because they would have been so difficult to build, so the study.
“Autobahns” and Society
The dams consisted of a mixture of mud and rubble between several layers of limestone cement. The Mayans likely made the elevated paths using a process similar to that used to build their pyramids – by creating 10 to 15 foot (3 to 4.5 meters) tall stone boxes, which they then filled, stacked and leveled hansen. Some of these dams were up to 130 feet wide, almost half the length of an American football field.
In the Mayan language, the word for dam is sacebe, which translates to white road. There was a thick layer of white plaster on the elevated roads that would have helped improve visibility at night because the plaster reflected moonlight, Hansen said.
The levees were built and elevated above the swamps and dense forest flora using layers of mud, rubble and limestone cement. A thick layer of white plaster lay on the elevated roads.
“They didn’t have pack animals in the Maya region … and we don’t think they had wheeled vehicles on those causeways like Roman roads, like chariots or anything, but they were definitely built to allow people to interact and communicate and probably between them.” places,” said Marcello Canuto, professor of anthropology and director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University.
Canuto, who was not involved in this study, co-directed the research that used the same LiDAR technology to uncover over 60,000 ancient Mayan structures in 2018.
The dams “were efforts that took a lot of people, a lot of work and coordination,” Canuto said. “These are complex work projects that would have required coordination and some form of hierarchy.”
Advanced Laser Mapping Technology
LiDAR has been used to detect the remains of early Maya civilizations since 2015, when two large-scale surveys of the southern half of the Mirador Calakmul Karst Basin were conducted. Technology allows these discoveries to be made without harming the rainforest.
Light waves are pulsed down from an airplane flying overhead and bounce off objects below before returning to the sensor. Similar to sonar, which uses sound to locate structure, the LiDAR sensor tracks the time it takes for each pulse to return and creates a three-dimensional map of the environment below.
“Imagine you’re in Poughkeepsie, New Jersey and that’s all you can see, but you might catch this thing we call the turnpike, right, but everything else is covered in jungle… you will.” Turnpike could connect New York to Philadelphia,” Canuto said. “LiDAR tells us that everything we’ve found archaeologically over the last 100 years is here and there, everywhere… With LIDAR, we can connect all the dots. “
According to Hansen, the researchers plan to collect more samples this month and potentially locate more settlements through LiDAR technology to continue their study of the early Maya civilization.