Not far from the sites tourists already know, like the towering temples of the ancient city of Tikal, laser technology has uncovered about 60,000 homes, palaces, tombs and even highways in the humid lowlands.
The findings suggested an ancient society of such density and interconnectedness that even the most experienced archaeologists were surprised.
"Everywhere that we looked, there was more settlement than we expected," said Thomas Garrison, a National Geographic explorer and an archaeologist at Ithaca University. "We knew there was going to be more, but the scale of it really blew our minds."
Researchers found the structures by shooting lasers down from planes to pierce the thick foliage and paint a 3-D picture of the ground below. The technology is called Light Detection and Ranging, or lidar.
around the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. But this lidar project is the largest ever undertaken. More than 800 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala's Petén region have been mapped, according to an exclusive report by National Geographic, which is airing a Feb. 6 television special about the project.
The lasers are only the first step, he added, noting that he and archaeologists still had to trek through jungles to verify the data while contending with thick undergrowth, poisonous snakes, swarms of killer bees and the odd scorpion.
The Maya culture was known for its sophisticated approach to agriculture, arts and astronomy. The peak era for the civilization, which some archaeologists refer to as the Classic Period, is generally considered to have lasted from around A.D. 250 to 900.
The total population at that time was once estimated to be a few million, said Diane Davies, an archaeologist and Maya specialist based in the United Kingdom. But in light of the new lidar data, she said it could now be closer to 10 million.
"To have such a large number of people living at such a high level for such a long period of time, it really proves the fact that these people were highly developed, and also quite environmentally conscientious," she said.
Among the structures uncovered were roads, built wide and raised high above the wetlands to connect fields to farmers and markets to metropolises. There were also small dwellings, quarries and intricate irrigation systems. "We're seeing the spaces in between, and that's where really interesting stuff was happening," Dr. Garrison said.
He added that in addition to changing people's perception of the Maya culture, lidar represented "a sea change" in the field of archaeology.
"I don't think you see a lot of discoveries happening across the sciences right now that sort of turn a discipline on its head," he said. "It's exciting to know that it can still happen."
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