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Central America Archaeologists See with Lidar

image of South America rainforest

In 2022, Richard D. Hansen led a team in Guatemala’s Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin and found Mayan structures consistently spread over a 650-square-mile area (slightly larger than modern London). They identified 964 previously unknown sites aged 1000 B.C. to A.D. 150 and 110 miles of raised causeways connecting them. While it was already known that Mayan civilization was spread throughout Central America, many assumed tropical forest settlements were an obstacle to creating complex societies.

From an article in Discover by Kelly Enright.

“For too long, Maya archaeologists have been blinded by the jungle,” wrote Arlen Chase, Diane Chase, and John Weishampel, in a 2010 Archaeology article.

And now, using light detection and ranging, lidar for short, developed for NASA, archaeologists are mapping more hidden ruins than ever before.

Mapping Archaeology Sites With Lidar Technology

In 1929, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh assisted Carnegie Institute archaeologists with an aerial expedition over Central America. As they flew a Sikorsky S38 over Mayan ruins, the archaeologists could see their sites of interest from above for the first time and search for new ones in a matter of hours. Aerial photographs from this expedition solidified the value of viewing ruins from above.

Today, archaeologists are using a new technology to map ruins from above. But what is lidar technology? Lidar shoots lasers down from above – hitched to a drone, helicopter or plane – creating detailed digital maps. Unlike an aerial camera, the lasers fit between the leaves of the tree canopy revealing detailed maps of topography too difficult to observe with the naked eye, making it possible to map even the most forested places. Though archaeologists are better known for their work on the ground, this technology has enabled them to tell new stories of human habitation and environmental change.

With the applications of lidar at the Belize city of Caracol, researchers mapped some 500,000 acres. Perceptions of tropical forests as completely wild jungles, devoid of complex civilizations – or even the possibility of creating one in its landscape – have shaped the field’s questions for generations. The Chases’ map revealed the tallest man-made building in Belize, as well as monuments, houses, terraces, roads, causeways and highways. It would have taken a lifetime to plot these points by hand from the ground.

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