LIDAR scan reveals a network of roads in the Guatemala jungle. [Credit: Archaeological Project Cuenca Mirador]
It’s one thing to use a 3D scanner to scan a person, animal, or object, and use the scan to 3D print an object you can pick up and hold, but it’s quite another to 3D scan something that can’t be seen with the naked eye. 3D scanning can reveal hidden cities beneath dense jungle foliage, help us keep the world’s beaches free of garbage, and even assist in the development of a driverless car in blizzard conditions. All three of these projects used a type of high-tech 3D scanning called Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR. This aerial surveying technology fires laser pulses, then measures the time it takes for the light to bounce off its surroundings in order to develop a detailed point cloud. This is analyzed to reveal detailed information about whatever area is being scanned, like a city under a jungle, and each material or surface that’s scanned in this method bounces back just a little differently. The differences are then isolated and recorded, in order to identify and catalog objects. This LIDAR mapping technology was recently deployed in the Guatemalan jungle, and revealed a network of ancient ‘superhighways’ that once connected pyramids. This important discovery means that the Maya civilization may have rivaled that of the vast Roman empire.
Researchers with the archaeological Mirador Basin Project discovered the roads last month. The basin is surrounded by limestone hills, and researchers and scholars from 34 universities and research institutions are hard at work on the project. El Mirador, located in the Petén jungle, is home to the largest known pyramid in Central America, and was the largest Mayan city-state in what is now Guatemala. Its population numbered around one million people, and archaeologist/anthropologist Dr. Richard D. Hansen from the University of Utah, the project leader, says it was “the first state of all the Americas.” It was also known as the Kan Kingdom, and collapsed around the year 150 BCE. Very few ancient civilizations left behind evidence of roads they may have built, except for Rome…or so we thought.
LIDAR scan reveals a network of roads, canals, corrals, pyramids, and terraces at El Mirador. [Credit: Archaeological Project Cuenca Mirador]
LIDAR technology used in the Mirador Basin made high-resolution 2D and 3D maps, allowing the researchers to get a three-dimensional view of the historic Basin without the canopy of jungle foliage getting in the way. The high-precision radar LIDAR scans the area, using a laser that can “penetrate the vegetation at a rate of 560,000 points per second.” Experts scanned and analyzed over 700 square kilometers of the Basin, in what Dr. Hansen said was a “one-of-a-kind study ever to be conducted in Mesoamerica.” Using both 2D and 3D images, they discovered walls, canals, pyramids, dikes, corrals, and terraces, but most important was the network of 17 roads, some of which were over 240 kilometers long and 40 meters wide. Researchers say the roads would have been used for freight transport.
In addition to the unique network of roads, they have learned a great deal, including that Guatemala has the highest pyramids, and was the “cradle of the Maya civilization.” Researchers believe that the corrals, or animal pens, they discovered through the LIDAR scans were first established by El Mirador inhabitants. Dr. Hansen reports that he believes the “sophisticated system of corrals is evidence that meat production in the Mirador Basin may have existed on an industrial level,” but that more research is necessary in order to confirm this.
This discovery of an ancient network of roads, and previously unknown pyramids, means that the Mirador Basin Project researchers have even more sites to investigate, and they hope that any future findings can help us understand why the civilization declined. In order to discover more information on this long-ago civilization, Dr. Hansen “urges the governments of Guatemala and Mexico – as far as ‘El Mirador’ extends – to support protecting the area and boosting sustainable tourism.” According to the Mirador Basin Project website, the basin is being considered for protection by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, as a wilderness area. Discuss in the LIDAR forum at 3DPB.com.