Aguada Fénix: Laser mapping reveals the largest and oldest Mayan temple

It’s a painstaking job that lasted his entire career.

But now, archaeologists – or at least their tools – are being taken to heaven.

A new remote sensing technique called lidar, or light detection and range, can produce detailed models of any terrain, revealing secrets usually hidden by tree canopies and woods.

This laser mapping increases the speed and scale of archaeological discoveries and has revealed the earliest and largest ceremonial structure the Maya have ever built – covering more ground than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

“It’s so horizontal that if you walk around the place, it looks like part of a natural landscape. You wouldn’t recognize its rectangular shape. But in lidar it looked nice,” said Takeshi Inomata, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and lead author of the discovery. published on Wednesday in Journal of Nature.

“Without a leader, probably he would recognize Finally the importance of this site. But it would take many seasons of hard mapping in the field, ”he said.

Named Aguada Fénix, this hitherto unknown Maya site in Tabasco, Mexico, was built between 1,000. years before 800 AD. A huge elevated platform stands 10 to 15 feet above the surrounding area, and nine canals extend from the platform.

Inomata said its volume, 3.8 million cubic meters, is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (2.6 million cubic meters) — although much shorter than the pyramid.

The platform would be used for rituals, and the team found thirsty axes and other valuable items at its center, Inomata said.

From the site excavated axes, dating from 1,000-700. Pr. Other valuable items were also found.

“The ritual probably included processions along the driveways and gathering a large number of people on a rectangular plateau. It was a gathering place for the community, which probably motivated people to build it.”

The Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization that flourished throughout Mexico and Central America from 2000 BC to the time of the Spanish conquistadors. in the 16th century. They are best known for the taller, stepped pyramids built in places like Chichen Itza.

Game changer

Lidar revolutionized the field of archeology in much the same way as the discovery of radiocarbon dating occurred in the 1940s, said Patricia McAnany, an Mayan archaeologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the research.

Laser mapping reveals dozens of ancient Mayan cities

The technique relies on laser pulses emitted from an airplane or drone, and signals that bounce backward generate data. Image processing can then yield bare terrain models from which vegetation has been digitally removed.

“The straight lines and angles in the bare terrain model suggest elements that have human rather than geological origins,” McAnany wrote in a commentary to the study published in the journal Nature.

It should have been earlier years of fieldwork on a map of the great ancient Mayan city such as Tikal in Guatemala and Caracol in Belize, McAnany said in a comment.

“I spent thousands of hours of field work walking behind a local man operating a machete that would cut straight lines through the woods,” McAnany said. “This process creates a network within which we archaeologists continue on foot to find any buildings that are present. Then, after more machete cuts reveal the angles, shape and height of the ancient buildings, the buildings could finally be replicated.

In addition to mapping Aguad Fenix ​​from the sky, the team also excavated the site, discovering ceramic pots and other objects.

“Lidar images from a single flight of an airplane can provide more information than can be produced by decades of conventional archaeological surveys,” she said.

Human cooperation

This latest discovery sheds light on the central question of archeology: how did community life develop? Did it begin with a sedentary life in small villages or occasional gatherings for ritual activities, such as religious or astronomical rites?

McAnany said that for a sedentary life one usually goes the way of ritual gatherings, but there is more and more recent evidence to suggest the opposite.

At the newly discovered site, the study says the lack of housing platforms suggests that its residents led at least a partially mobile life.

A stone sculpture found in Aguada Fenix ​​dating from 1000-700. years before Christ.

Inomata said the discovery also calls into question the traditional view that large construction projects in ancient times required a strong elite and social inequality.

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No clear indications of significant social inequality were found, such as sculptures representing high-status figures, Inomata said, meaning the construction of Aguad Fénix was carried out in a “lack of a powerful elite”.

“While there were probably some leaders who played a central role in planning and organizing such work, the main factor was the voluntary participation of people in such constructions. This tells us about the potential of human cooperation that does not necessarily require centralized government.”

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