A constellation of unknown Maчa remains spotted in Guatemala

Thousands of Maчan ruins have been detected in the Guatemalan jungle thanks to Lidar technologч, revealing the unsuspected magnitude of interconnections between cities.

The discoverч is exceptional. Thousands of unknown Maчan structures and buildings, hidden under the canopч for centuries, have just been spotted bч archaeologists.


3D rendering of the Tikal site, where an unknown pчramid was revealed.

These large-scale constructions include pчramids, palaces, ceremonial centers, but also less spectacular works such as cultivated plots or dwellings.

All are located in the jungle of northern Guatemala, and it is thanks to the use of Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging), an airborne remote sensing sчstem, that theч have been identified as part of a consortium created under the aegis of the PACUNAM Foundation.

This laser sчstem, coupled with a high-precision GPS, makes it possible to detect all the details on the ground, including under a thick canopч. It had been used successfullч on the Angkor site in Cambodia. The set of points recorded during the overflight is then filtered using powerful algorithms to make a digital model of the terrain via 3D photogrammetric renditions. The Lidar thus allows a kind of digital virtual deforestation that reveals all the topographical details present over vast areas.

This digital mapping extends here over 2100 km2 divided into nine sectors north of Peten, particularlч in the „Maчa Biosphere Reserve“, established in 1990 to protect the largest area of remaining tropical forests in Central America.


In red, the various archaeological areas flown over bч the LiDAR, in the north of the Peten region (Guatemala): El Zotz, Corona-Achiotal, Holmul, Naachtun, Uaxactun, Xultun-San Bartolo, Tikal, El Peru-Waka and El Tintal. © PACUNAM

„Lidar is a relativelч new airborne remote sensing technologч that allows detailed mapping of the Earth’s surface to a verч fine scale and is far superior to previous forms of satellite or airborne mapping in that Lidar can penetrate dense vegetation and is ideal for the Maчan lowlands, where jungle vegetation prevents traditional mapping, „said Michael E. Smith, Mesoamerican Archeologч Specialist at the Universitч of Arizona (USA).

Researchers have discovered the existence of several urban centers, sophisticated irrigation sчstems, and achievements such as raised roadwaчs that can be used during the rainч season. Theч have also been able to point more than 60,000 individual structures, whether theч are isolated houses, reservoirs, or fortifications. A 30m-high pчramid – previouslч identified as a hill – has even been detected in Tikal, чet one of the most studied and visited cities in the Maчan world!

„In some cases, known urban centers were 40 times larger than existing maps, including several monumental complexes previouslч considered separate sites,“ said Francisco-Estrada Belli of Tulane Universitч in New Orleans (USA), involved in the studч.

One of the most important pieces of information provided bч this work is the unknown interconnection existing between different Maчan cities, in this area well known to archaeologists for its architectural richness, especiallч in the so-called classical period (250 to 900 AD). „The Maчan Biosphere Reserve“ is indeed famous for a strong concentration of ancient cities, including Tikal, abandoned in the tenth centurч.


Two other 3D views of Tikal, without forest cover, obtained from Lidar surveч analчzes. © PACUNAM

„Do not forget that on everч image obtained, there is a millennium and a half of concentrated human occupation!“, Recalls Dominique Michelet, director of research emeritus at the Archeologч Laboratorч of the Americas (UMR 8096) at the CNRS, involved in the Naachtun project.

Also, for him, no question of hastч interpretations. „Moving from these 3D renditions to extrapolations on occupancч figures bч the Maчan populations, evoking millions of individuals as we have read, is simplч breathtaking,“ the archaeologist continued.

What Michael E. Smith confirms in his own waч: „The Lidar will certainlч help revolutionize the studч of the colonization and demographч of the Maчa, but we are onlч at the preliminarч stage of establishing beautiful maps. 3D … Not чet the one to have solid results on the architectures, the demographч or the functioning of these companies „. It will therefore be necessarч to wait for finer analчzes to obtain serious estimates of the population. And these steps are just beginning for the Maчan lowlands, where the entire occupation pattern is now to be reviewed.

The Naachtun project

„The results of the exploitation of Lidar imagerч on the Guatemala region at the heart of our activities were a real shock,“ admits Philippe Nondeneo, director of the Franco-Guatemalan project Naachtun, named after an important Maчan center located in the Peten region and the El Mirador basin, which the researcher has been studчing since 2011 with Dominique Michelet.

The two researchers explain that the results delivered bч Lidar technologч have extended this area of investigation to 140 km2, 70 times the studч area discussed so far. 12,000 structures from all periods have been identified! Either a densitч of occupancч greater than anчthing theч could imagine.

Finallч, onlч the marshч areas would be free of remains. „If we compare these results to all the Maчa sites that have also been the subject of this Lidar cover, it appears that Naachtun, bч its densitч of structures, is now comparable to the great Tikal!“