Lost Maya City Found Using Laser Technology

Posted by on Aug 17, 2023 in Stuff You Should Know, World History

It may seem unusual to look for a lost city from the sky, but that’s how scientists first detected clues that uncovered an ancient Maya city.  

More than 1,000 years ago the Maya civilization thrived. When the civilization collapsed, the dense tropical forest of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula hid several Maya cities for centuries. Recently, with the help of laser technology, scientists have located an unknown Maya settlement.  

What is LiDAR? 

In March 2023, Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz, an assistant professor in civil engineering at the University of Houston, flew above the tree canopy of the Yucatán Peninsula. He spent hours using LiDAR imaging technology. LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, can reveal structures or formations hidden by thick vegetation.  

Fernandez-Diaz used LiDAR technology that transmitted light from a laser in the plane to the surface of the earth. The reflected light energy was timed, measured, and captured by LiDAR sensors in the airplane. A digital image was created from the information. Scientists later digitally removed the trees and vegetation from the image to produce a detailed 3D map of the area. This remote sensing technology has become critical to archaeologists. It saves them years of work.  

It took Fernandez-Diaz three four-hour flights to survey this uncharted area of the Yucatán. Fernandez-Diaz also serves as the co-Investigator at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping. He has participated in 45 archaeological investigations and has mapped more than 20,000 square kilometers in Central America. He has helped uncover significant Maya structures. His most recent work revealed raised circular and rectangular shapes, which suggest human settlements. 

Uncovering Ocomtún 

A team working on the ground had to carve its way through thick undergrowth to verify the LiDAR findings. So, in May and June 2023, a team lead by archaeologist Ivan Šprajc, a researcher at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), began the expedition on foot.  

Šprajc has been described as “the real-life Indiana Jones.” He has spent nearly 30 years unearthing Maya ruins. The area he and his team were targeting lies in the central Yucatan Peninsula. This unexplored region is part of a large ecological preserve. The site is 30 miles from the nearest road. It took about two weeks using chainsaws and machetes to cut a path through the forest to reach the site. 

The hard work paid off. The ruins include several structures typical of Maya cities. The team found three plazas, pyramids, altars, and numerous stone columns. Šprajc named the ruins Ocomtún, which means “stone column” in Yucatec Mayan. The columns likely were part of entrances to upper rooms of the city’s buildings.  

Stone pyramids are a well-known feature of Maya civilization. Two of the pyramids in Ocomtún rise 50 feet. A high platform area stretches more than 260 feet and rises 80 feet. Another familiar Maya structure discovered in the city was a ball court. The Maya played a game using balls made of hard natural rubber. Players attempted to pass the ball through a high stone ring using their hips, legs, or arms.  

One unique find in Ocomtún was a series of parallel circles. Šprajc can only guess that these may have been marketplaces.  

Maya Achievements and Decline 

The Maya began to settle throughout southern Mexico and Central America around 1500 B.C.E. The civilization flourished for almost two thousand years. By studying astronomy, the Maya created calendars to guide their agricultural activities. They made advancements in mathematics and used hieroglyphs as a written language. Each city-state was ruled by a king. Often the city-states would war against each other.  

Ocomtún was likely inhabited between 600 and 800 C.E. Šprajc says that based on its massive size, it was clearly an important city in the region.  

The Maya civilization began to decline around 900 C.E. According to Šprajc, people may have abandoned the cities due to overpopulation, soil depletion, extended drought, or warfare. Historians are unclear about the precise causes of the decline. It may take years to fully explore and unlock all the secrets held within the Ocomtún ruins. 

Dig Deeper Maya society included more than 50 independent city-states. Ocomtún, Calakmul, Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copan are a few. Identify these Maya cities on a map of southern Mexico and Central America.