Airborne laser scans reveal unknown Mayan road network in Guatemala

An ancient network of roads that stretched over nearly 250 kilometres has been discovered in the Guatemalan jungle thanks to LiDAR scans.  The structures date to 600 BC and were created by the first state-like civilisation that developed in Mesoamerica.

Mayan features and causeways within the Guatemalan forest shown by LiDAR (by FARES 2016)

The causeways, identified by airborne Light Detection and Ranging, were identified in the Mirador Basin, in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala, in the heart of the largest tropical forest remaining in Central America. El Mirador, or Kan Kingdom, is considered the cradle of Mayan civilization. Prior to its abandonment in 150 AD, it was the largest city-state in the world both in size (covering over 2150 square kilometres) and population. It boasted the largest known pyramid in Central America, and was home to at least one million people. Since the initial discovery of the road system in 1967 laser-based remote sensing, used to map the area, provided the largest amount of information about the massive system of superhighways.

Arrows point to roads between Mayan structures discovered by LiDAR (by FARES 2016)

Researchers working in the Mirador Basin Project have so far scanned and analysed more than 1100 square kilometres of the basin. The scans accurately portrayed structures, agricultural terraces, pyramids, canals, corrals and a network of 17 roads, providing detailed evidence of the roads’ construction, destinations and locations. The causeways are about 40 metres wide, about 12 metres high and stretch even as far as 40 kilometres. The first building of the causeway between Mirador and Tindall and Mirador and Nakbe dates to between 600-400 BC, while other causeways date from 300 BC to 100 AD.

Thick jungle vegetation at the northern Guatemala (by FARES 2016)

According to the researchers, the creation of these causeways allowed unification of what appears to be the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere. The sophisticated system of corrals, or animal pens may have been established first by the inhabitants of Mirador, which would suggest that meat production in the Mirador Basin existed at an industrial level, with transportation relying on the causeways. They allowed transport of food, materials, tribute, rulers, armies and all the trappings of political, economic and social complexity.

(after Seeker & FARES 2016)

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