“It’s being blind, and then being able to see,” said Dr Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, about the astonishing discovery of about 60,000 homes, palaces, tombs and highways in the humid lowlands of northern Guatemala. Laser technology has uncovered tens of thousands of structures built by the Maya over a millennium ago, hidden under the cover of tree canopies not far from the towering temples of the ancient city of Tikal.
Researchers uncovered the structures using Light Detection and Ranging technology, or lidar, which involves shooting lasers down from planes to pierce the thick foliage and paint a 3-D picture of the ground below. And this lidar project is the largest ever undertaken, with more than 800 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala’s Petén region having been mapped, according to an exclusive report by National Geographic.
The project was started by Pacunam, a Guatemalan non-profit organization run by Carmen’s friend Marianne Hernandez, who began planning it back in 2015 with archaeologists including Marcello Canuto. With the help of supporters, Pacunam has spent more than $600,000 on this first phase, and the organization hopes to use the laser technology to map the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Among the structures uncovered were roads, built wide and raised high above the wetlands to connect fields to farmers and markets to metropolises. There were also small dwellings, quarries and intricate irrigation systems. But the project is not just about protecting cultural treasures. It is part of a broader push to fight climate change, generate tourism and prevent illegal activities such as border trafficking and deforestation in protected areas. “We need to marry the interest in pursuing scientific stories with our interest in finding a sustainable model for the area,” said Marianne Hernandez.