It’s a headline far too futuristic to ignore coming out of western Belize. Lasers have been used to image an area of rain forest covering an ancient Mayan city. Once thought to be far smaller, the lasers have demonstrated that what was once thought to be a small town is actually a sprawling metropolis.
Diane and Arlen Chase of University of Central Florida used the system after decades of carefully clearing away brush so as to not disturb the ruins, but get the thick jungle cleared away from the site of the city itself. The jungle has proven to be a formidable ally in keeping the site preserved from human interference thus far, but unfortunately has extended this to the two anthropologists as well. After decades of painstaking search, they couldn’t contain their excitement as the new technology did months of work for them per hour.
The method of this incredible feat, carried out by the National Center for Airborn Laser Mapping is called Light Detection and Ranging (or LiDAR for short). The idea is the laser shoots photons in a concentrated beam, and allows for a three dimensional model to be constructed from the measurements the LiDAR. The resulting map is then studied. Through this system, scientists were able to determine where buildings may still stand, where roads had once been constructed, and where the centers for the city’s society had been. The survey process, which normally takes weeks or even years was accomplished in a mere four days thanks to this study. The survey, which took place in 2009, was recently announced to have been a huge success.
The city itself was at its height between 1,500 and 1,900 years ago. Though only a small percentage of the mountains of material have been unearthed, there is much potential for future research to uncover a great deal both about the Mayan people and their culture. Of the ancient societies that existed in the western hemisphere, fewer are more mysterious and admired than the Maya. The ultimate abandonment of many Mayan cities is still a subject of intense debate in many anthropological circles. Perhaps the study of this most recently uncovered city can help give direction to those debates. And perhaps the LiDAR system has made it so the couple can discover some interesting details about the Mayan way of life before the mysterious day of 2012 when many say the world was predicted to end by the Mayan calendar.
And it’s an interesting juxtaposition, using advanced forms of technology to study things that were around long before even steam power was discovered. And as the world of technology and the world of the Maya collide, we benefit richly from the cultures discovered from this incredible time of peace, bloodshed, and everything in between. One cannot help but wonder what other technologies await us in the future that will let us know more about who we once were, and therefore also learn who we are and may one day become.