Lidar Uncovers Hundreds of Lost Maya and Olmec Ruins

A recent airborne lidar survey revealed hundreds of lost Maya and Olmec ceremonial locations in southern Mexico. The Mexican Instituto Nacional de Estadstica y Geogrfia surveyed the 32,800-square mile area and made the data available to the public. Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona archaeologist, and his colleagues examined the area. It stretches from the Olmec heartland to the Bay of Campeche, and the western Maya Lowlands, just north of Guatemala's border. They identified 478 ceremonial sites that were mostly obscured by vegetation or simply too large to be recognized from the ground.
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It was impossible to study such a large area until a few decades ago, stated Inomata. The public availability of lidar has transformed archaeology.

Infrared surveys have shown thousands of irrigation channels, causeways and fortresses in Maya territory over the past several years. These borders now include Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. Infrared beams can penetrate thick foliage to measure the height of ground. This often reveals features such as abandoned canals and plazas. These results showed that the Maya civilization was much larger and densely populated than we thought.

Recent research suggests that the Maya civilization might have inherited some cultural ideas from the Olmecs who lived along the coast plains of southern Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC.

Cosmological Construction

The largest known Maya monument, however, is also the oldest. Near the border of Mexico and Guatemala, people constructed a 1.4-kilometer-long platform made from earthen. The 478 sites discovered in the region are similar to AguadaFenix's layout and features, but on a smaller scale. These sites are built around rectangular plazas and lined with rows upon rows of earthen platforms. This is where large groups of people used to gather for rituals.

According to Inomata and his associates, the sites were built between 1100 BC and 400 BC. They were likely constructed by diverse groups of people sharing common cultural ideas like how to build a ceremonial centre and the importance given to certain dates. These platform-lined gathering areas are located at certain spots on the horizon, depending on where they can be found.

Inomata said that this means they were representing cosmological concepts through these ceremonial spaces. This space was used by people who gathered according the ceremonial calendar. Many of the 478 sites indicate sunrise on days exactly 40, 80, and 100 days prior to that date.