Details of stunning Maya acropolises and sophisticated civilization revealed by laser scans

A 3D digital image of Labna, an ancient Maya structure in the Puuc region.
(Image credit: Courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén)

By shooting billions of lasers at the ground, scientists have uncovered evidence of a sophisticated civilization left by the ancient Maya who lived in the northern Yucatán Peninsula in what is now Mexico, a new study finds.

The laser survey revealed that in a region of the hilly northern Yucatán, known as the Puuc (pronounced “Pook”), the Maya built remarkable structures, including artificial reservoirs, more than 1,200 ovens, a handful of terraces for farming and nearly 8,000 platforms where houses were built. The ancient Maya also quarried the rock there, the laser scan revealed.

“It seems to have been a very prosperous area because we have all these masonry [stone] houses,” study lead researcher William Ringle, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Davidson College in North Carolina, told Live Science. “It seems like people had access to what they needed.”

Moreover, the Maya in the Puuc built four large acropolises dating to the Middle Formative period (700 B.C. to 450 B.C.) and civic centers dating to A.D. 600 to 750, during the Late Classic. While these structures were already documented, an analysis of the laser data revealed that these Puuc communities had a distinct city layout that isn’t seen in other Maya regions.

Related: Photos: Carvings depict Maya ballplayers in action

Researchers have known about the ancient Maya settlements in the Puuc since the 1840s, but there’s never been a comprehensive lidar (light detection and ranging) survey of the region until now. With lidar, a machine aboard an aircraft shoots laser beams at the ground; these lasers can go through any intervening vegetation and then bounce back to the machine once they hit a solid object, such as rock or an ancient human-made structure. By calculating the time it takes for the laser light to return to the machine, software can create a detailed 3D map of the terrain.

Before arranging the May 2017 lidar survey, Ringle and his colleagues — study co-researcher Tomás Gallareta Negrón, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mérida, Mexico, and George Bey, an anthropologist at Millsaps College in Mississippi who wasn’t involved in the new study — had spent about 20 years doing groundwork in the Puuc region.

“Here, we had a guy fly over in two days [for the lidar survey], and we had more data than we could have ever obtained within … our lifetimes,” Ringle said.

Analyses of the lidar maps, which covered about 92.5 square miles (237 square kilometers), revealed about 7,900 housing platforms, including on the region’s hills, indicating that the Puuc region had a large population that was largely concentrated across different communities, with a few houses in the Puuc’s hinterlands. Many of these housing structures still had stone lines marking different rooms — there were about two to three rooms per house, Ringle said. These details suggest that the Puuc was likely “among the most densely settled within the Maya lowlands,” an area that includes parts of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the researchers wrote in the study.

What’s more, the team didn’t find any evidence that the elite lived in affluent neighborhoods. “It wasn’t a case of all the high-status people living in the center and as you moved away from the center, people got poorer and poorer,” Ringle said. Rather, “we have these elite compounds dispersed throughout communities.”

Despite being highly populated, it appears the people in the Puuc region were largely peaceful; the communities were fairly close to one another — usually about 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 km) apart — but there wasn’t evidence of defensive structures in any of them, the researchers found. “There are images of warriors on some of the sculptures,” Ringle noted, “but it didn’t get to the point where people were barricading themselves from their neighbors.”

Related: Maya murals: Stunning images of king and calendar

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