LIDAR technology was used to find 478 Mesoamerican monuments in Mexico. On the image - the Aguada Fenix complex. Credit: ALFONSOBOUCHOT/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CC BY-SA)

Laser-Mapping Unveils 500 Previously Unknown Ancient Monuments

Archaeologists collected LIDAR data from over 80,000 square kilometers of southern Mexico and found nearly 500 previously unknown ancient sites created by the Olmec and Maya cultures. Most of the discovered monuments are over 3,000 years old.

An international team of researchers using surface laser scanning technology (LIDAR) have discovered 478 Mesoamerican monuments in southern Mexico, including the mysterious Mayan complex called Aguada Fenix. Almost all of the discovered sites were previously unknown to researchers.


Archaeologists using LIDAR might have made the largest discovery in years

How did they do it?

Archaeologists mapped the sites according to the results of a laser scan, which was carried out from the air. A special device, a lidar, was installed aboard the aircraft, on which archaeologists flew over a vast area in southern Mexico. It is noted that the study itself started last year. It was then that scientists managed to find the largest and most mysterious Mayan object with the help of lidar. It received the name Aguada Fenix.

What did they find?

This helped to reveal previously unknown monuments, most of which are at least 3,000 years old. At one time, these were monumental sites that may have been used for ceremonial purposes. Most of the Mesoamerican monuments are safely hidden in the jungle in modern days.

Aguada Fenix

This is a monument dating from 1000-800 BC. It includes a huge artificial plateau that is 1400 meters long and up to 15 meters high. Next to it, on both sides, are 10 smaller platforms. There are 20 of them in total, and as the researchers note, the number 20 is the basis for the numbering system of many Mesoamerican cultures. The number 20 is also significant in Mesoamerican cosmology and the calendar.

Research area

This year, researchers surveyed the area around Aguada Fenix. In their work, they also used publicly available lidar data previously collected by the authorities. In total, the scan covered a huge area of ​​84,500 square kilometers. In some cases, the quality of lidar images turned out to be low, but even such images made it possible to make many discoveries. In addition, archaeologists personally visited some of the discovered Mesoamerican monuments.

The entire research area with cities and sites designated in their locations. Credit: Takeshi Inomata
The entire research area with cities and sites designated in their locations. Credit: Takeshi Inomata

How many hidden Mesoamerican monuments did LIDAR reveal?

All this as a whole led to the discovery of 478 ancient complexes, which the authors of the work call ceremonial. Some of the monuments, according to experts, were erected by representatives of the Mayan civilization, some by the Olmecs, who preceded them.

What was the purpose of these monuments?

Although scholars write that the objects were supposed to be used for ceremonial gatherings, the true purpose of these monuments has not yet been reliably established. At the same time, scientists found that all these objects were not part of cities and smaller settlements. They were built away from settlements, which may indicate the sacred significance of these structures.

The standardized layout of the ancient Mesoamerican monuments

Scientists also note that the layout of many of the found objects was standardized. The Mayans and the Olmecs seemed to have built them according to some plan common to all. This indicates a high degree of organization of the ancient society. The study also showed that people began to settle in the area of ​​monuments only around 500 BC. It is possible that until this time, the entrance to the territory of the objects was limited by the priests.

How trustworthy are studies using LIDAR technologies?

Landscape archaeologists Timothy Murtha noted that researchers should take more care when interpreting lidar survey results. According to him, the lack of evidence of permanent residence and the early appearance of majestic monuments casts doubt on the hypothesis that monuments, monarchy, and agriculture arose synchronously in Mesoamerica.


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Sources:

Bower, B. (2021, October 27). Lidar reveals a possible blueprint for many olmec and maya ceremonial sites. Science News.
Dockrill, P. (n.d.). Hundreds of ancient maya sites hidden under Mexico reveal a mysterious blueprint. ScienceAlert.
Fritts, R. (n.d.). Nearly 500 mesoamerican monuments revealed by laser mapping-many for the first time. Science.
Inomata, T., Fernandez-Diaz, J. C., Triadan, D. (2021, October 25). Origins and spread of formal ceremonial complexes in the olmec and maya regions revealed by Airborne Lidar. Nature News.
Rosenswig, R. M. (2021, October 25). Early mesoamerican monumentality. Nature News.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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