Archaeologists are sending lasers from the sky to uncover ancient settlements hiding in plain sight.
LiDAR uses laser pulses to penetrate dense vegetation, revealing man-made structures underneath.
Cutting-edge laser technology transforms archeology by creating 3D renders of ruins.
In recent years, archaeologists have turned to lasers to discover ancient civilizations that were previously invisible.
The laser technology known as LiDAR — short for light sensing and ranging — uses aircraft to send thousands of laser pulses from the sky to the ground below, penetrating through the dense, deep forest canopy. This provides scientists with 3D maps beneath the vegetation, revealing man-made structures.
From a Mayan city to complex villages deep in the Brazilian Amazon, here are five previously unknown civilizations that have been discovered thanks to cutting-edge LiDAR technology.
Hidden 2,000-year-old Maya civilization in northern Guatemala
Using laser pulses, scientists have discovered a 2,000-year-old Mayan civilization in northern Guatemala with nearly 1,000 archaeological sites.
From their topographical maps of the area, they determined that the civilization consisted of more than 417 cities, towns and villages spread over 650 square miles.
The settlement had dozens of ball fields and a total of 110 miles of navigable causeways that allowed the ancient Maya to travel.
The findings were published in December in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.
Nearly 500 long-lost Mayan and Olmec ceremonial sites in Mexico
In a study published in October 2021, scientists discovered 478 Mesoamerican sites that they estimate to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
These sites span 32,800 square miles in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz, where the Olmec and Mayan civilizations flourished.
The discovery helps archaeologists connect the Olmec and Maya cultures.
“Just a few years ago, it was unthinkable to explore such a large area,” Takeshi Inomata, a University of Arizona anthropologist who co-authored the study, said in a press release at the time, adding that LiDAR technology was “transforming archaeology.”
61,000 previously unknown structures hidden under the dense Guatemalan jungle
In 2018, scientists used laser technology to map Petén in Guatemala, where the Mayans once lived.
They discovered 61,480 long-lost roads, house foundations, military fortifications and elevated causeways. They all date back to 650 and 800 AD, the Late Classic Maya period.
“Taken as a whole, the terraces and irrigation canals, reservoirs, fortifications and dikes reveal a staggering amount of land modification by the Maya throughout their landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, an anthropologist at Tulane University and collaborator, said the study’s author in a release. press.
81 earthworks, including fortified villages and roads, deep in the Amazon rainforest
In Brazil’s Mato Grasso region, archaeologists used LiDAR to find evidence of 24 sites with 81 earthworks, including connected roads and fortified villages built on mounds.
They believe the structures may have supported a complex civilization with a population of up to 1 million people between 1250 and 1500, Insider previously reported.
Some geoglyphs, as archaeologists call places carved into the Earth, were up to 1,300 feet in diameter.
There may be hundreds of other places in the jungle hidden in a “continuous series of settlements,” Jonas Gregorio de Souza, lead author of the paper, told the Wall Street Journal in 2018.
“It seems like it was a mosaic of cultures.”
An overgrown ancient civilization buried in the Bolivian Amazon
In what is now Bolivia, LiDAR has revealed the hidden ruins of 26 indigenous settlements, nine of which are new discoveries that flourished in the Amazon rainforest more than 600 years ago.
The settlements were from the Casarabe culture, which covered an area of about 1,700 square miles between 500 and 1400 AD
They also discovered stepped platforms and conical pyramids up to 72 feet high.
“Our results refute arguments that the western Amazon was sparsely populated in pre-Hispanic times,” the researchers wrote in the journal Nature.
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