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Cover image: A LiDAR image from Tikal, the most important Maya city. PACUNAM/Marcello Canuto & Luke Auld-Thomas

Early Thursday morning, February 1, 2018, National Geographic broke a story intended to drive viewership to a one-hour special entitled “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings” that will air on Tuesday, February 6, 2018 at 9 Eastern/8 Central on the National Geographic Channel. The teaser is “See how LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology and rewriting history.” The National Geographic story that quickly went viral is entitled “Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya ‘Megalopolis’ Below Guatemalan Jungle.” In subsequent days, the story has been picked up by other major media:

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The details in this story explicitly corroborate dozens of verses in the Book of Mormon that describe dense populations, sophisticated economies, road networks, large-scale agriculture, intensive land use, disaster-prone landscapes, and prevalent warfare. Even LDS scholars have tended to dismiss some Book of Mormon phrases such as “the whole face of the land” as hyperbole. If the Maya lowlands were part of the Book of Mormon world, these grandiose descriptions may not be so far-fetched after all. Respected archaeologists are now comparing the Maya with the ancient Chinese.

LiDAR is a technology where expensive equipment is flown in a slow grid pattern over a target area. Billions of pulsed laser beams penetrate the forest canopy and bounce off structures below to create a massive data cloud. Graphics processing with supercomputers then yields highly accurate 3-D maps of the scanned surface. This digital imaging technique is revolutionizing Mesoamerican archaeology where important ruins lie concealed beneath jungle or forest.

Guatemalan LiDAR Data after Rendering and Graphical Processing

Richard Hansen’s and Fernando Paiz’ Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (PACUNAM) just went public with the results of the largest LiDAR survey ever attempted for archaeological research. It mapped 10 tracts totaling 2,100 square kilometers in the Mirador Basin and other areas of northern Guatemala. The surveyed area is less than half the size of Utah County. And what did archaeologists find buried in the Peten?

  • 60,000 previously unknown structures
  • vast networks of highways elevated so they functioned even in the rainy season
  • ubiquitous fortresses, ramparts, and defensive walls
  • waterworks including dikes, dams, canals, and reservoirs
  • agricultural terraces with irrigation systems
  • animal pens
  • stone quarries

It will take decades to study so many new sites, but settlement patterns and big picture insights are already apparent.

  • Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15 million Mormon 1:7
  • Maya civilization was much more complex than previously thought Jarom 1:8Helaman 3:13-15
  • Maya cities were more interconnected than anyone realized 3 Nephi 6:8
  • Food production was on an industrial scale Helaman 6:12
  • land use was intensive – nearing 100% utilization is some areas Mormon 1:7
  • Many people lived on marginal, swampy lands 4 Nephi 1:9
  • Endemic warfare over centuries was the norm Mormon 8:8
  • Warfare was particularly prevalent in the early classic AD 250-500 Moroni 1:2

This northern Guatemalan LiDAR project will continue in phases, eventually mapping more than 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Utah County). At that point it will have mapped approximately 1.4% of the ancient Maya area which covers 350,000 square kilometers (about the size of Montana).

Guatemalan LiDAR Data after Additional Graphical Processing

LiDAR in archaeology is like the Hubble Telescope in astronomy.

For notes of a 2015 talk given by Richard Hansen that discussed part of this LiDAR project, see the article “Hansen and Coe.” For additional LiDAR images from the Mirador Basin, see the articles “Roads and Highways” and “Flocks and Herds.”

Hansen, almost certainly the leading field archaeologist in Mesoamerica (he’s nicknamed “King of the Jungle”), served his mission in Bolivia, graduated from BYU, and is a practicing Latter-day Saint living in Rupert, Idaho.