“This is a beginning, a doorway that opens to decades of further research,” explained Pacunam’s Marianne Hernandez to Tom Clynes of National Geographic. Carmen’s longtime friend and President of the organization that is leading private sector efforts to help conserve Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve was speaking about the ground breaking archaeological project currently underway in the region. And having already uncovered tens of thousands of structures built by the Maya over a millennium ago, latest discoveries have now revealed that contrary to popular belief, large-scale conflict was an enduring feature of the ancient civilization’s existence.
It was back in 2015 when Pacunam first started planning the project, which is part of a broader push in conjunction with the Guatemalan Government to fight climate change, generate tourism and prevent illegal activities such as border trafficking and deforestation in protected areas. Using Light Detection and Ranging technology (LiDAR), which involves shooting lasers down from planes to pierce the thick foliage and paint a 3-D picture of the ground below, archaeologists are hoping to map the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized area that represents 20% of Guatemala’s territory, 60% of its tropical forest, and is home to over 1,200 Maya archaeological sites.
To date the LiDAR project, the largest ever undertaken, has uncovered some 60,000 homes, palaces, tombs and highways in the humid lowlands of northern Guatemala, but the recent discovery of a large fortress complex has called into question previously held beliefs about the civilization. “We had a tendency to romanticize Maya warfare as something that was largely ritualized and concentrated toward the end of the civilization,” explained Brown University archaeologist and Maya scholar Stephen Houston, “But the fortifications we’re seeing now suggest an elevated level of conflict over centuries.” Indeed, the heavily fortified site, now called La Cuernavilla, features 20-foot-high walls, watchtowers, and stores of large stones that probably served as ammunition. It is the largest defensive system ever discovered in the region, and according to Houston, “possibly in all of the ancient Americas.”
Other surprises revealed by the project include discovering that the ancient city of Tikal, the largest and most extensively explored archaeological site in Guatemala, was at least four times bigger than previously thought, and was also home to two large pyramids, previously presumed to be natural features. Archaeologists have also uncovered two previously unknown settlements.
A second phase of data collection is scheduled to take place this summer - the first phase generated the largest data set ever obtained for archaeological research. And as Marianne Hernandez explained to National Geographic, “As we fill in more of the gaps, I think we’ll continue to realize that Maya civilization was as robust as some of those that are now considered to be the most important civilizations of antiquity.”
For the past four years, Marianne Hernandez has dedicated her time to non-profit efforts in sustainable conservation. In addition to her role as President of Pacunam, which is committed to the preservation of Guatemala's natural and cultural heritage and where Carmen also serves alongside her on the board, she is also a member of the CoutureLab Coalition, and hosted Carmen and other coalition members during their recent trip to Guatemala as part of a broader development initiative focused on Latin America.