Lidar quickly becomes one of the most influential tools in archeology, revealing things in a matter of hours that would otherwise have taken months of machete swinging and manual measurements. The latest discovery of this kind is a huge Mayan structure, more than a kilometer long, 3,000 years old, and apparently used for astronomical observations.
Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona is the lead author of the paper that describes the monumental artificial plateau and was published in Nature magazine. This unprecedented building – by far the largest and oldest of its kind – may remind you of another such discovery, the “Mayan metropolis” found in Guatemala two years ago.
Such huge structures, foundation groups, and other evidence of human activity may seem obvious to you. But when you're on the ground, they're not nearly as obvious as you think – usually because they're covered by both a tree roof and thick undergrowth.
"I spent thousands of hours of field work walking behind a local machete-swinging man who was cutting straight lines through the forest," wrote anthropologist Patricia McAnany, who was not involved in the research, for a comment that also appeared in Nature appeared. "This time-consuming process required years of field research, often decades, to map a large ancient Mayan city like Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize."
Below is an aerial view of the location. If you didn't know there was something there, you might only notice some slightly geometric hills.
Lidar detects the distance to objects and surfaces by bouncing lasers off them. Thanks to powerful computer technology, it can see through the canopy and find the height of the floor underneath, creating a detailed height map of the surface.
In this case, the researchers selected a large area of the Mexican Tabasco region on the Guatemalan border that is known to have been occupied by the early Mayan civilization. A large area lidar scan of the low resolution area revealed some leads, and smaller areas were then scanned at higher resolution, producing the images shown here.
The result was a huge ceremony center called Aguada Fénix, the main feature of which is an artificial plateau that is more than 10 meters high and 1.4 kilometers long. It is believed that these huge plateaus, of which Aguada Fénix is the oldest and largest, were used to track the movement of the sun through the seasons and perform various rites.
The high-resolution lidar map also helped speed up other insights, such as that the community that Aguada Fénix built had "probably no pronounced social inequality" due to the lack of statues or sculptures in honor of contemporary leaders comparable to others in the world was 1,000-800 v time frame (calculated from carbon dating). That such a huge project could have been carried out without the support and command of a rich central authority – and at a time when the Mayan communities should be small and not yet stationary – could be due to the existing doctrine on the development of the Maya culture turn your head.
All due to advances in laser scanning technology, which most see as a way for self-driving cars to avoid pedestrians. You can read more about Aguada Fénix in Nature and this article from National Geographic.