In the autumn of 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles flew across the Yucatán Peninsula. With Charles at the controls, Anne snapped photographs of the jungles just below. She wrote in her journal of Maya structures obscured by large humps of vegetation. A bright stone wall peeked through the leaves, “unspeakably alone and majestic and desolate — the mark of a great civilization gone.”
[A lidar survey over the ancient city of Tikal strips away the vegetation to show the hidden structures. The total coverage included 10 important archaeological sites
Nearly a century later, surveyors once again took flight over the ancient Maya empire, and mapped the Guatemala forests with lasers. The 2016 survey, whose first results were published this week in the journal Science, comprises a dozen plots covering 830 square miles, an area larger than the island of Maui. It is the largest such survey of the Maya region, ever.
The study authors describe the results as a revelation. “It’s like putting glasses on when your eyesight is blurry,” said study author Mary Jane Acuña, director of El Tintal Archaeological Project in Guatemala.
In the past, archaeologists had argued that small, disconnected city-states dotted the Maya lowlands, though that conception is falling out of favor. This study shows that the Maya could extensively “exploit and manipulate” their environment and geography, Acuña said. Maya agriculture sustained large populations, who in turn forged relationships across the region.
Combing through the scans, Acuña and her colleagues, an international 18-strong scientific team, tallied 61,480 structures. These included: 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals that connected cities; large maize farms; houses large and small; and, surprisingly, defensive fortifications that suggest the Maya came under attack from the west of Central America.