LiDAR technology sheds new light on ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala

Ruins of an ancient Mayan temple at Tikal National Park in the tropical province of Petén in Guatemala. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Guatemala, the largest country in Central America, often makes the headlines, but almost always for the wrong reasons: violent crime, drug trafficking, natural disasters and illegal immigration.

When it comes to discovering ancient civilizations, however, Guatemala is a world leader.

Cradle of the Maya civilization, which flourished from around 2000 BC. until the Spanish conquest in 1697, Guatemala is home to hundreds of pre-Columbian ruins, including the magnificent, world-famous Tikal, located in the rainforest of Petén Province, as well as -known sites such as El Mirador, Iximche, Quirigua, Uaxactun, Nakum, Zaculeu and Topoxte.

On January 27, the Meridian International Center and the Embassy of Guatemala co-hosted a two-hour virtual program on Mayan civilization and culture, and recent groundbreaking discoveries using a technology known as LiDAR (Detection and Ranging light).

Alfonso Quiñónez, Ambassador of Guatemala to the United States, speaks during a January 27 webinar on mapping Mayan ruins using LiDAR technology.

“We are presenting something truly spectacular for Guatemala,” said Alfonso Quiñónez, Guatemala’s Ambassador to the United States. “About three weeks ago, I was walking through some of these archaeological sites. This was my sixth time in the area, and each time I go I am more and more in awe of the Mayans. And I also know LiDAR and its impact very well.

The program is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its Global Humanities Initiative. Other speakers included Meridian CEO Ambassador Stuart Holliday and two archaeologists from Tulane University: Dr. Marcello Canuto and Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli.

The PACUNAM LiDAR initiative, a public-private partnership involving 15 collaborating members and approximately 60 experts, enables archaeologists to use aerial light detection and ranging to identify features below the forest canopy with little or no impact on the environment.

This collaborative effort represents the largest LiDAR mapping project in the world, said Quiñónez, whose Tennessee-sized country is home to about 18.4 million people.

Guatemala: “Place of Many Trees”

“Our geographical location makes us very exposed to climatic events. This has a significant human and economic cost,” the ambassador said. “That’s why management is so important. Few people know that LiDAR technology provides us with many tools to help manage climate change. »

To that end, he said, the Guatemalan government is fighting to prevent deforestation.

“Our name, Guatemala, comes from the Nahuatl word which means “place of many trees”. So the fact that Guatemala has declared 30% of its territory as a National Protected Area should come as no surprise,” Quiñónez said, noting that his country has the second largest rainforest in the Americas after the Amazon. “In the mid-1990s, the government established one of the most successful sustainable communities in the world, the Maya Biosphere.”

Dr. Marcello Canuto, director of the Central American Research Institute at Tulane University, led the research with his colleague, Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli, author of “The First Mayan Civilization.”

“People think of ancient civilizations as complex societies, but they’re few and far between. There aren’t many of them,” Canuto said. “Remote sensing is the notion of looking down from above. Some of the places that we thought were the cradle of complex societies were known largely because they were visible.The archaeological ruins of Southeast Asia or the Amazon were covered in tropical forests that made it impossible to see them, not only from the air but also from the ground, but new technologies such as LiDAR now allow us to appreciate them.

In fact, one of the problems that has plagued Maya research in the lowlands for years is the dense, impenetrable jungle canopy – part of what makes them so attractive and romantic.

Estrada-Belli said that around AD 900, the lowland Maya civilization collapsed and large areas of northern Guatemala were depopulated.

LiDAR has “revolutionized our ability to map”

“The jungle quickly took over these urban landscapes. For a thousand years no one has lived in this region. And here we are, trying to pick up the pieces,” he said.

]”The great advantage we had was that unlike some forests in the world – where great cities were built on top of ancient ones – here there were no obstacles for us except the jungle”, Estrada-Belli continued. “Nothing has been built over them to disrupt our understanding. We have a very untouched landscape to study, if we can map it appropriately.”

Scientific exploration of the region began in the middle of the 19th century. In 1929, the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh was invited to fly over the region. Over the next few decades, professional cartographers were hired to catalog as many Maya sites as possible.

“Tulane was one of the first to launch a mapping program,” Canuto said. “At the time, it was a monumental mapping effort to do just 16 square kilometres. Everything was mapped by hand.

But LiDAR, Estrada-Belli said, “has revolutionized our ability to map.” The technology has allowed archaeologists to cover about 7,000 square kilometers in 2019 and recognize virtually any structure, “even small things that you couldn’t see even if you were standing right in front of it, but also really big things because their size is obscured by the jungle itself.

In just six months, archaeologists managed to scan an area ten times larger than five years of standard pedestrian surveys had covered. Technology can help collect data and obtain the variations, elevations, and mysteries behind the Mayan landscape, such as information on population density and cultivation practices.

Additionally, data can be presented to appeal to a wide range of audiences; day and night views, 3D enhancement and thermal panoramas are just some of the filters users can choose from to bring the data to life.

“Each investigation has been bigger than the last,” Estrada-Belli said. “We hope that in the future all of this data will be aggregated and studied as one data set.”

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