By raining down laser pulses on some 770 square miles of dense forest in northern Guatemala, archaeologists have discovered 60,000 Maya structures that make up full sprawling cities.

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

And the new technology provides them with an unprecedented view into how the ancient civilization worked, revealing almost industrial agricultural infrastructure and new insights into Maya warfare. 

"This is a game changer," says Thomas Garrison, an archaeologist at Ithaca College who is one of the leaders of the project. It changes "the base level at which we do Maya archaeology."

The data reveals that the area was three or four times more densely populated than originally thought. "I mean, we're talking about millions of people, conservatively," says Garrison. "Probably more than 10 million people."


The team surveyed 10 separate areas. It took months to process the data. As the picture became clearer, Garrison said he would sent emails to his colleagues expressing surprise at the magnitude.

He recalls seeing an initial image of one area in northern Guatemala. "I saw this image and I said, the whole area is covered in Maya settlement. You won't believe it," he adds. "And then once we got the actual data and saw the whole scope of it. We said, 'Wow, we're going to be able to really do something with this.'" 

Together, they are able to weave together a picture of individual city-states and their vast support network.

"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," he says. "We're seeing it all laid bare, and saying, 'OK, this is how all of this was connected and came together.'"

Archeologists, for example, knew that the Maya had agricultural fields. But he says this data show "huge, huge expanses of these irrigated field systems in these low lying swamps."

And they knew that the Maya fought, often with each other, because defensive walls had been previously spotted. But this new information reveals "Maya fortresses and systems of interconnected watchtowers," raising the possibility of more sophisticated and large-scale warfare.

The civilization had a network of raised causeways stretching "many, many kilometers." They also were "channeling water for hundreds of meters or modifying hilltops so they become these impregnable areas."