Science

Laser mapping reveals nearly 500 ancient ceremonial sites in Mexico

Laser mapping reveals nearly 5...
The discovery last year of Aguada Fenix (above), the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered, started a project that led to the latest discovery of nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix
The discovery last year of Aguada Fenix (above), the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered, started a project that led to the latest discovery of nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix
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Excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita
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Excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita
The lidar data studied covered a 32,800-square-mile area
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The lidar data studied covered a 32,800-square-mile area
The discovery last year of Aguada Fenix (above), the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered, started a project that led to the latest discovery of nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix
3/3
The discovery last year of Aguada Fenix (above), the largest and oldest Maya monument ever uncovered, started a project that led to the latest discovery of nearly 500 smaller ceremonial complexes similar in shape and features to Aguada Fénix
View gallery - 3 images

A landmark study is reporting the discovery of nearly 500 ancient monuments in Mexico using airborne laser mapping. The newly discovered sites are thought to date back at least 2,500 years, in between the Olmec and Maya civilizations.

Last year an international team of researchers published a groundbreaking study reporting on the discovery of a massive Maya structure. The almost mile-long rectangular platform was named Aguada Fénix, and the researchers dated the structure to between 1000 and 800 BCE, making it the oldest Maya ceremonial site ever discovered.

The site was found using airborne lidar, a laser mapping technology. After discovering this unusual structure the researchers wondered how widespread these arrangements were, but detailed lidar surveys are expensive and time-consuming.

So the research team looked to publicly available lidar data gathered by the Mexican government. This data is usually too low-resolution for archeological studies, but the researchers were hunting for particular patterns that hadn’t before been targeted. And combining that data with on-foot site visits and more focused high-resolution lidar work the researchers are now reporting the discovery of 478 previously unknown ancient sites in the Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz.

"It was unthinkable to study an area this large until a few years ago," explains Takeshi Inomata, first author on the new study. "Publicly available lidar is transforming archaeology."

The lidar data studied covered a 32,800-square-mile area
The lidar data studied covered a 32,800-square-mile area

The newly discovered sites span a massive area linking Aguada Fénix in the Western Maya lowlands with an older ancient site in the east known as San Lorenzo, thought to be the center of the Olmec civilization dating back to at least 1,200 BCE. The study also reports the discovery of a larger rectangular platform at San Lorenzo, indicating compelling connections between the older Olmec civilization and the more recent Maya civilization, which peaked between 250 and 950 CE.

"People always thought San Lorenzo was very unique and different from what came later in terms of site arrangement," says Inomata. "But now we show that San Lorenzo is very similar to Aguada Fénix – it has a rectangular plaza flanked by edge platforms. Those features become very clear in lidar and are also found at Aguada Fénix, which was built a little bit later. This tells us that San Lorenzo is very important for the beginning of some of these ideas that were later used by the Maya."

Inomata and his colleagues speculate these large rectangular platforms were used as ceremonial spaces, allowing people to congregate for ritualistic purposes. Many of the sites seemed to be oriented to sunrise on certain dates.

A number of the sites also were found to have 10 smaller platforms flanking off each side. This total of 20 flanking platforms corresponds with the significance of the number 20 in Mesoamerican numerical systems.

Excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita
Excavation efforts at one of the nearly 500 uncovered sites, La Carmelita

As part of the newly published study the researchers report visiting 92 of the lidar-tracked sites. This helped verify the findings and pointed to dates spanning between 1000 and 400 BCE.

In many ways these findings are just the starting point for what is likely to be decades of work on the ground, investigating and excavating these newly discovered sites. Inomata says these sites raise a whole host of new questions surrounding the links between Olmec and Maya civilizations.

"There are still lots of unanswered questions," says Inomata. "Continuing to excavate the sites to find these answers will take much longer, and will involve many other scholars."

The new study was published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Source: University of Arizona

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3 comments
3 comments
paul314
The whole area seems to have been densely populated and farmed. Until europeans got there?
aksdad
paul314, most of these sites were abandoned long before the Spanish arrived in the 1500's. There were many cultures that arose, flourished, traded and warred with each other before Spanish contact. Spanish conquerors decimated the remaining Aztec and Mayan civilizations through conquest and accidentally introducing diseases that wiped out milions.
Nelson Hyde Chick
By the time we destroy ourselves we will know plenty about the cultures that died before us.