Beneath the Jungle: Large LiDAR Survey in Maya Lowlands Unveils a Sophisticated Kingdom – The Archaeological Conservancy

By Michael Bawaya

Photo showing figurine.
This Middle Preclassic figurine was recovered in sealed contexts dating from 1000 to 800 B.C. from the Trogon Group of the Tigre Complex at El Mirador.
Photo credit: R.D. Hansen / FARES

In 2009, archaeologists Arlen and Diane Chase led a LiDAR study of Caracol, a large, 2,600-year-old Maya city in Belize. LiDAR (an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote-sensing technology that bounces lasers off of surfaces in order to generate detailed maps that are based on the time it takes for the pulses to return to a receiver. Though not a new technology, LiDAR was, at that time, new to the field of archaeology. Its potential was particularly apparent to Mayanists, many of whom work in remote areas with dense tropical canopies in southern Mexico and Central America. 

Richard Hansen, an archaeologist with Idaho State University who directs the Mirador Basin Project in northern Guatemala, said the Chases’ study inspired him to do a large LiDAR study. The Mirador Basin is a vast area in the Petén rainforest, and Hansen has been doing archaeological research in this region for more than forty years. He and his colleagues have mapped and excavated fifty-six settlements, a significant accomplishment, though one, it turns out, that barely scratches the basin’s surface. 

Hansen decided to give LiDAR a try in a 1.6 million acre expanse in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico called the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB). His study, which is one of the largest LiDAR surveys conducted in the Maya lowlands, has revealed a sophisticated Preclassic-period kingdom of hundreds of settlements ruled by the city of El Mirador and connected by a huge system of causeways.

This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2023 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!

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