Laser Mapping Technique Provides Insight into Mayan Cultures

CNN recently reported that laser mapping has revealed incredible details about more than a dozen ancient Mayan cities. This is a major development in the fields of archaeology and anthropology.

The innovative process of laser mapping has allowed scientists to identify more than 60,000 ancient structures spanning across the jungles of northern Guatemala. Early reactions to this development reveal stunned scientists in that the maps show us that there were many more structures and more complex systems in ancient Mesoamerican civilization than previously thought. While scientists were able to make reasonable estimates about the size of these ancient societies and guesses about how they functioned, these new maps have uncovered much more work to be done in the way of understanding these ancient cultures and how the civilizations developed.

One of the major assumptions that this recent discovery has turned on its head is that the tropical areas of South America were far too inhospitable for large civilizations with established structures to thrive. This is now proven not to be the case. In addition to the basic necessities for a society to thrive, the laser maps show that there were also many defensive structures built. This suggests that societies planned to stay in one place for extended periods of time and were not constantly looking for new temporary shelters. This also means that there may have been much more advanced developments in terms of tools and technology than previously thought because the population could stay put in the same place and flourish for longer periods.

The way that the aerial laser mapping is completed makes it expensive and time-consuming to accomplish. Lasers are attached to the undersides of airplanes that fly over the thick jungle areas of Central and South America. A project of this magnitude across multiple archaeological sites was previously not possible because the coordination it required was just too extensive. Scientists can now get a look at the vertical canopy above ground as well as insight into the structures that were put in place at the ground level through the same data. The Maya Cultural and Natural Heritage (PACUNAM) is fundraising to help pay for the cost of chartering the flights so that the laser mapping can continue throughout the region. There is still much more ground to cover and data to be analyzed, which is keeping teams of archaeologists from all around the world very busy.