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Maya population estimate increase too hasty, UH anthropologist says

Maya ruins aerial photography done by UH researchers.

Aerial photograph of ancient Mayan ruins. UH researchers helped map Guatemalan jungle that revealed undiscovered Mayan ruins. | Courtesy of Juan Fernandez-Diaz

Deep in the verdant tropical jungles of Guatemala, a joint research team, including a UH-based organization, used advanced technology to pierce the thick canopy and find ancient Mayan wonders.

Using airborne light detection and ranging technology, or LiDAR, the UH-based National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) found roughly 60,000 previously unmapped structures, leading to estimates that millions more Mayans may have lived in the Mesoamerican empire than previously assumed.

But a UH anthropology professor warned against hasty assumptions, saying researchers have no idea when these structures were inhabited.

“It increases our knowledge of where the Mayans built things, but I don’t care how many trees you strip away in photographs and images,” said UH anthropology professor Kenneth Brown. “You don’t know when those structures were built; you don’t know how they functioned.”

Not intending to minimize the magnitude of the “fantastic work” done by researchers from NCALM and Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya, or PACUNAM, Brown said the process circumvented the danger and difficulty of surveying areas covered by heavy jungle.

“Archaeologists were working on the ground in the summers, kilometer by kilometer,” said NCALM Director Ramesh Shrestha in a UH news release. “If the work had continued in the classical archaeological method, they would not have finished in their lifetimes.”

Their findings were aired in a National Geographic episode “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings” in early February. 

The LiDAR process involves four researchers in the field, two of whom board an airplane to operate the machine, NCALM senior researcher Juan Fernandez-Diaz said.

“It’s kind of like mowing the lawn,” Fernandez said. “We go back and forth over the same area many times to map the area under study.”

NCALM has been conducting airborne surveys since 2009 in Mexico and Central America, according to Fernandez. They have been involved in about 20 projects so far, Fernandez said, and the one in Guatemala was the largest.

“Even while we are extremely excited with the results coming out,” Fernandez said, “we are not at all surprised.”

The research team gathered their information over eight flights in July 2016, Fernandez said. The team spent a total of about 44 hours in the air.

“The first five minutes are exciting,” Fernandez said. “The last 42 hours are very boring.”

The lasers produce a “point cloud.” That’s essentially a huge array of three-dimensional coordinates that allow the researchers to map the landscape beneath the thick jungle canopy that covers much of Central America.

The survey was funded by PACUNAM, a non-governmental cultural and environmental institution in Guatemala.

PACUNAM was already working in six areas in Guatemala when Fernandez and the rest of his team were brought in, Fernandez said.

NCALM’s job was to expand around these areas in addition to a few others that were “a shot in the dark,” Fernandez said.

“The way that I put it,” Fernandez said, “is that we’re kind of building a puzzle, but we’re only finding one piece of the puzzle at a time.”

The previously unknown scale and number of these archaeological sites is what is causing a recalculation of Mayan population estimates, Fernandez said.

“A key question,” Fernandez said, “has to do with being able to tell which of these cities or structures were occupied when. We cannot do that without having information on the ground.”

The only way to determine when the newfound buildings were inhabited is to dig through the ground to find artifacts like pottery, Brown said, which can then be analyzed to find out when said buildings were in use. These artifacts could also indicate a certain buildings’ functions, Brown said.

“Archaeology in the Maya area has shown that some structures were built and occupied early and not used later,” Brown said. “Many Maya sites include — just like our cities do — ruined buildings that nobody’s using.”

The Maya have a history of building over older structures, but according to Brown, that doesn’t mean they built over every defunct building.

“I think I’ve seen population estimates from 5 million to 30 million people,” Brown said. “So they’re all over the place, and nobody knows.”

Despite the disagreement over the size of the Maya empire, researchers seems to agree the discovery, and archaeological work as a whole, is an important academic study, if only to understand ourselves and where we come from.

“As human beings, we have a very natural instinct to try to figure out where we come from and where we are going,” Fernandez said.

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