An airborne LiDAR survey recently discovered a host of long-lost Maya and Olmec ceremonial sites in southern Mexico. The Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography and archaeologists from the University of Arizona examined the area and identified 478 ceremonial sites hidden beneath vegetation and others simply too large to recognize from the ground.
LiDAR’s role in archeology
Takeshi Inomata, the lead archaeologist, mentioned that “It was unthinkable to study an area this large until a few years ago.” LiDAR is transforming many industries and archaeology is one of them. Over the last years, LiDAR surveys have disclosed thousands of causeways, irrigation channels, and fortresses across the Mayan territory. This is due to infrared beams that can penetrate dense foliage to measure the height of the ground, which often reveals features such as long-abandoned plazas or canals.
The Mayan sites
The 478 newly rediscovered sites share the same basic features and layout as Aguada Fenix, but on a smaller scale. The Aguada Fenix is a ceremonial center that has the oldest and largest Maya monument, built 3,000 years ago. Inomata and his colleagues estimate the discovered sites were built between 1100 BC and 400 BC. The site also has ceremonial spaces representing cosmological ideas. City plans built around cosmology were key features of several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Maya and the Olmec.
The Olmecs at San Lorenzo
LiDAR images of Aguada Fenix and San Lorenzo show a rectangular plaza and 20 edge platforms. As for the Olmecs, the oldest known site is in San Lorenzo. Archaeologists believed the two sites were very different, but with the recent LiDAR survey, they noticed a rectangular plaza lined on two sides with earthen platforms, similar to the ones at Aguada Fenix and the hundreds of other sites revealed by the LiDAR. Until that moment, no one had been able to see it from the ground before.
Although this has been a great discovery that will give more information on these two great civilizations, more excavation and studies will be needed. Many mysteries are beginning to get solved but still, lots of questions remain unanswered.