'Game Changer': Maya Cities Unearthed In Guatemala Forest Using Lasers : The Two-Way The technology provides them with an unprecedented view into how the ancient civilization worked and lived, revealing almost industrial agricultural infrastructure and new insights into warfare.

'Game Changer': Maya Cities Unearthed In Guatemala Forest Using Lasers

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Archaeologists using lasers have discovered tens of thousands of Maya structures in northern Guatemala. As NPR's Merrit Kennedy explains, the researchers are getting an unprecedented big-picture look at how the civilization functioned.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Archaeology tends to be slow work. Thomas Garrison works in the dense Guatemalan jungle studying Maya sites. It took his team eight years to map less than a square mile. But recently a laser technology called LiDAR covered that ground and dozens more miles around it in the span of a few hours.

THOMAS GARRISON: It's very humbling, the LiDAR data. For those of us that spent our lives mapping and slogging around this area, you just sort of have to bow before the LiDAR and accept the fact that it's better than you are.

KENNEDY: LiDAR is short for Light Detection and Ranging, and here's how it works. A plane flies over the jungle in the Maya lowlands, sending down hundreds of thousands of laser pulses every second.

GARRISON: It's firing so many lasers that even though the jungle's so dense, some of them get down to the actual jungle floor.

KENNEDY: And scientists can remove the trees from the picture to create a map of structures on the ground.

GARRISON: It's digitally deforesting, basically.

KENNEDY: They found full undiscovered Maya cities, 60,000 structures over some 770 square miles in northern Guatemala. Garrison is a professor at Ithaca College. He says they can suddenly see the scope of how this great civilization functioned.

GARRISON: We said, wow, we're going to be able to really do something with this. This is a game changer.

KENNEDY: He says the area is three or four times more densely populated than originally thought, probably home to at least 10 million people. And the data is also showing researchers how Maya society worked.

GARRISON: Everything is amplified and made much clearer for us, and we see how it all fits together in a way that we have not seen before.

KENNEDY: For example, they can see how the Maya had huge areas of irrigated fields where they grew crops.

GARRISON: Channeling water for hundreds of meters or modifying hilltops so they become these impregnable areas.

KENNEDY: And raised causeways stretching for miles. He says the Maya were shaping the land in ways more advanced than previously thought.

GARRISON: They have molded the world around them to serve their purposes and survive.

KENNEDY: The new data also shows fortresses and interconnected watchtowers. Garrison says the Maya may have carried out more sophisticated large-scale warfare than we knew about, usually with each other. The jungle surveyed is only a fraction of the area the Maya lived. The researchers aren't even sure they've scanned all of Tikal, the major Maya city. There's a lot more still to be found. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News.

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