Beneath 1,350 square miles of dense jungle in northern Guatemala, scientists have discovered 417 cities that date back to circa 1000 B.C. and that are connected by nearly 110 miles of “superhighways” — a network of what researchers called “the first freeway system in the world.”
Scientist say this extensive road-and-city network, along with sophisticated ceremonial complexes, hydraulic systems and agricultural infrastructure, suggests that the ancient Maya civilization, which stretched through what is now Central America, was far more advanced than previously thought.
Mapping the area since 2015 using lidar technology — an advanced type of radar that reveals things hidden by dense vegetation and the tree canopy — researchers have found what they say is evidence of a well-organized economic, political and social system operating some two millennia ago.
The discovery is sparking a rethinking of the accepted idea that the people of the mid- to late-Preclassic Maya civilization (1000 B.C. to A.D. 250) would have been only hunter-gatherers, “roving bands of nomads, planting corn,” says Richard Hansen, the lead author of a study about the finding that was published in January and an affiliate research professor of archaeology at Idaho State University.
“We now know that the Preclassic period was one of extraordinary complexity and architectural sophistication, with some of the largest buildings in world history being constructed during this time,” says Hansen, president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies, a nonprofit scientific research institution that focuses on ancient Maya history.
These findings in the El Mirador jungle region are a “game changer” in thinking about the history of the Americas, Hansen said. The lidar findings have unveiled “a whole volume of human history that we’ve never known” because of the scarcity of artifacts from that period, which were probably buried by later construction by the Maya and then covered by jungle.
Lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, works via an aerial transmitter that bounces millions of infrared laser pulses off the ground, essentially sketching 3D images of structures hidden by the jungle. It has become a vital tool for archaeologists who previously relied on hand-drawings of where they estimated areas of note might be and, by the late 1980s, the first 3D maps.
When scientists digitally removed ceiba and sapodilla trees that cloak the area, the lidar images revealed ancient dams, reservoirs, pyramids and ball courts. El Mirador has long been considered the “cradle of the Maya civilization,” but the proof of a complex society already being in place circa 1000 B.C. suggests “a whole volume of human history that we’ve never known before,” the study says.
Rick Chacon, professor of anthropology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., says the research “sheds light on how the ancient Maya significantly modified their local environment, and it enhances our understanding of how social complexity arose.” Chacon was not involved in the research.
Enrique Hernández, an archaeologist at San Carlos University in Guatemala City and a co-author of the paper, has spent several months every year for the past two decades excavating in El Mirador.
He says that once the area is fully revealed, it could be potentially as significant a marker in human history as the pyramids in Egypt, the oldest of which dates circa 2,700 B.C. (The Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, which is more than 2,000 years old, is the largest in the world by volume. It is shorter but wider than Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza.)
It’s hard to imagine such a huge archaeological draw right now: El Mirador’s remoteness in Petén, along the Mexico-Guatemala border, is visited each year by only a few thousand tourists who must either hike nearly 40 miles through jaguar, puma and snake-filled rainforests or fly in by helicopter. (The Egyptian pyramids, by comparison, are visited by over 14 million people annually, with luxury hotels nearby.) But such is the magnitude of this find that Hernández says he thinks it could happen.
At Hernández’s archaeology lab, Idaho potato boxes stuffed full of ancient artifacts line the walls; 2,000-year-old masks rescued from El Mirador sit on the desks — the stone puma decals and shards on them having been painstakingly reattached in a poky upstairs room.
Before the lidar study, archaeologists, biologists and historians had identified about 50 sites of importance in a decade. “Now there are more than 900 [settlements]. … We [couldn’t] see that before. It was impossible.” Hernández says.
Among the multistory temples, buildings and roads, images of Balamnal, one of the Preclassic civilization’s crucial hubs, were revealed for the first time. It dates back to 1,000 or possibly 2,000 years before the most famous, and well-excavated, Maya site of Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which was constructed in the early A.D. 400s.
Excavations around Balamnal in 2009 “failed to recognize the incredible sophistication and size of the city, all of which was immediately evident with lidar technology,” Hansen says. Lidar showed the site to be among the largest in El Mirador, with causeways “radiating to other smaller sites suggest[ing] its administrative, economic and political importance in the Preclassic periods.”
The lidar images raise questions about how “one society living in a tropical jungle in Central America became one of the greatest ancient civilizations in the world [while] another society living in Borneo is still hunting and gathering in the exact same environment,” Hansen says.
Beyond how lidar mapping might reshape future finds both in this area and further afield, there is one thing on the minds of all involved: ensuring that the site is properly preserved.
About 40 miles south of Petén is Tikal, ruins of the largest city of the Maya civilization’s later “Classic” period (A.D. 200 to 900). Now a national park, Tikal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. It could serve as a possible blueprint for El Mirador.
Hundreds of thousands of people head to the national park each year (some of whom may be on the fan trail for “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope,” which had scenes filmed there in 1977); 15 percent of its temples have been excavated, with visitors free to clamber up their steep limestone steps.
“It could be something great,” Hernández says of El Mirador’s potential transformation into a significant tourist site. “But only if the government, archaeological organizations and locals work together. Then a decision can be taken as to whether it should become a national monument, an area of returned, modern-day Mayans and other Indigenous Guatemalans (who make up about 40 percent of the population in the country) or a tourist hub.
“I don’t want my kids to say, ‘oh, I remember the Mirador, it was a nice place, jaguars were living there’ — like a legend,” Hernández says. “We can save it now. This is the right moment to do it.”
Meanwhile, researchers say they will continue making their biannual trips to the jungle. And now they have more data to work with than ever before.
The 417 cities identified via lidar are among the first ports of call.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Hansen says. “It’s a big task, it’s expensive, but very, very worth it.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Richard Hansen is an affiliate research professor at the University of Idaho. He is an affiliate research professor of archaeology at Idaho State University. The article has been corrected.
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