Laser pulses shower across the Tabasco landscape, and the archaeologists’ computer system times how long it takes the light to bounce and return to their aircraft. This information enables them to map the Mexican landscape below. And, as the picture becomes clearer, they realize something: there has been an ancient Maya structure standing here for thousands of years, of which we modern-day humans had hitherto been completely unaware.
Not only that, but the previously hidden structure was, in some ways, even more impressive than previously discovered Maya relics. The ruins of the one-time Maya city Chichén Itzá sprawl over a four-square-mile stretch in Mexico’s Yucatán state. Its ancient residents founded the metropolis in the 6th century A.D., after having lived in the region for hundreds of years already.
But the newly uncovered Maya structure was built much earlier than Chichén Itzá – the former had been built between 1,000 and 800 B.C. The size of the ancient piece of architecture astonished the experts, too. Yet perhaps most shocking of all was that it had been hiding in plain sight for centuries, tucked into a stretch of partly forested ranch land in Tabasco.
Hunters and gatherers had long wandered across the Central American landscape, but their habits changed in the Pre-Classic period. During this era – which lasted from 1,800 B.C. to 250 A.D. – they began to settle into life in one place. They lived in villages that would eventually become Maya metropolises.
The Maya people’s ability to settle down stemmed from newly acquired skills which increased the effectiveness of their farming methods. They also varied their diets and cooking methods to make food more nutritious. For instance, they began to soak maize in lime before cooking it, which boosted its nutritional value. This enhanced the ancient villagers’ existing diet, which included beans, chili peppers, squash and cassava.
The Maya built their settlements cleverly as well. Archaeologists have come to realize that many of their larger communities were built on a grid: a very early implementation of city planning. The Guatemala-based metropolis of Nixtun-Ch’ich, for one, had all of its temples, pyramids and other buildings set up on these lines. And that locale flourished for 300 years.
Nixtun-Ch’ich’s peak, which lasted between 600 and 300 B.C., came long before Maya civilization reached its greatest heights. The civilization flourished most profoundly between 250 and 900 A.D. In his 2011 book The Maya, Yale professor Michael Coe described the Maya as having “reached intellectual and artistic heights which no other in the New World, and few in Europe, could match at the time.”
Each Maya city had its own treasures to be uncovered, too; it has become clear that each metropolis had its strengths, architecturally speaking. For instance, at Tikal, leaders had a pair of pyramids built every two decades. The flat-topped Guatemalan structures had staircases on either side and stood facing one another with a sprawling plaza in between.
Meanwhile, the Maya city of Copan has its architectural highlight in the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Stairway. The Honduran structure has a 63-foot staircase etched with more than 2,000 symbols that seem to tell the story of the one-time city’s leaders. The tale is also the longest-known inscription from the Maya era, to boot.
And then there’s Palenque, where the people constructed stunning buildings from limestone. They also created noteworthy underground structures, as well. Beneath a pyramid, they etched out a tomb for their one-time leader, Pakal, and the five human sacrifices buried alongside him. The jade-festooned sarcophagus in modern Mexico is considered by some to be the American answer to King Tutankhamun’s grand tomb.
The Maya didn’t just excel architecturally, although many of their advances contributed to their ability to construct such stunning buildings. For instance, they quarried for the limestone with which they created their pyramids and temples. They also devised the system of hieroglyphic characters which appear extensively on their buildings and also on paper made of fig tree bark.
Perhaps most famously of all, though, the Maya came up with a calendar and astronomical system that was extremely sophisticated. Their calculations varied slightly from the calendar we use today. They counted 18 months, each with 20 days, along with an extra set of five days to round out each year.
But the Maya didn’t just plan for the year ahead: they used their estimations to look far into the future, as well. Experts call these far-off calendars a long count, which contained a handful of different methods of measurement. Sometimes, they counted off by days, while other units of measurement covered millions of years with a single tick.
These calendars have contributed to the idea that the Maya predicted the end of the world happening in 2012. However, experts who have cracked their counting code were able to refute this theory. The unit of measurement used in that misread estimate was the one representing millions of years in the future, meaning the end of their calendar came much later than 2012.
Clearly, the Maya were incredibly advanced – yet their civilization went unceremoniously into decline from approximately 900 A.D. Those who have come to study these ancient people have drawn up theories for the fall of their once-booming society. The Maya may have gone from a population of two million to obscurity because of violent conflict, for one.
Another hypothesis paints a picture of a one-time agricultural powerhouse losing its ability to grow crops. The Maya may have stripped the soil of its nutrients or otherwise exhausted their environment, rendering them unable to grow enough food. Drought and deforestation could have contributed to this, too.
The Maya civilization may have started to suffer when war cut off its trading routes, both on land and on rivers. Even though its people went into decline after about 900, though, the civilization didn’t completely expire. It was specifically lowland strongholds that suddenly disappeared – meanwhile, metropolises on the Yucatán peninsula, such as Chichén Itzá, prospered for centuries.
At the end of the Post-Classic period, which finished in 1519, Maya culture looked very different to its heyday. The Spanish colonists arrived to find the Maya not in their stone-built cities but living in villages, continuing to cultivate crops effectively. They carried on the religious beliefs of their elders, too.
It has taken decades for archaeologists to better understand the Maya, though. Some of the most important research took place in the mid-1800s at the hands of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. It wasn’t the first research done into the Maya and their history, but their work did draw international attention to this pioneering group of Central Americans.
Catherwood and Stephens received so much attention because their work was thorough. The latter wrote stories about what he and his colleague uncovered, while the former drew up illustrations to accompany the text. Together, this painted a very precise picture of what Maya strongholds including Chichén Itzá and Copan looked like.
Catherwood and Stephens did more than just share Maya treasures with the world, though.The duo worked to dispel downright racist hypotheses about their pyramid-laden cities strewn across Central America. Some authors of the same era had tried to argue that the Egyptians had to have sailed over to build these incredible sites, as they wrongfully assumed indigenous people weren’t capable of such an accomplishment.
Since Stephens and Catherwood’s groundbreaking research, more and more treasures of the Maya civilization have been uncovered over time – and they continue to reveal themselves. For example, in 2019 experts organized a dig not far from the tourist hotspot of Cancún, Mexico and found a spectacular relic of the country’s indigenous people.
The more-than-1,000-year-old building in Kulubá measured in at 180 feet in length, nearly 50 feet in width and a height of almost 20 feet. The archaeologists on the scene could see that it had once contained six rooms. And the building itself was part of an encompassing complex of residential spaces, an oven and altar.
Even that substantial discovery didn’t have the startling dimensions of Chichén Itzá, though. The centerpiece of the one-time Maya metropolis is the pyramid, El Castillo, which stretches 98 feet into the air. The site also encompasses an ancient sports field, the Great Ball Court, and various other temples and pyramids.
The scope of such monuments made the results of a 2017 study – the results of which were published in June 2020 – even more surprising. Takeshi Inomata led a team of archaeologists who aimed to uncover hidden Maya structures with the help of LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging.
LiDAR works by sending pulsed laser beams down from an airplane or helicopter. The light hits the Earth below, then bounces back to the receiver on the aircraft. The device records how long this process takes, which then allows it to measure the distance between it and the ground.
So, LiDAR creates a topographic map of the earth – or in some cases, of the seafloor and riverbeds – with just pulsed light and a receiver. In the case of Inomata and his team, they wanted a clearer picture of lowlands in Tabasco, Mexico; the site lies about 850 miles to the east of Mexico City.
Interestingly, the land that the archaeologists wanted to survey wasn’t a typical candidate for LiDAR scanning. They’d normally use the technology to see through thick jungle foliage and onto the ground below. But ranchers had largely deforested Tabasco over centuries – and yet, it took a LiDAR scan to reveal its hidden Maya secret.
The pulsing laser beams outlined a platform of raised earth with a volume of 130 million cubic feet. Such massive measurements mean that the raised land covers more land area than the Pyramids of Giza. And, on top of this massive stretch, the Maya had built a handful of structures, including a pyramid that stands 13 feet tall.
The platform, given the name Aguada Fénix, is between 32 and 49 feet higher than the land surrounding it. But Inomata told CNN in June 2020 that it made sense how such a massive structure had gone unnoticed. He explained, “It is so huge horizontally that if you walk on the site, it looks like a part of natural landscape. You would not recognize its rectangular shape.”
With LiDAR, though, Inomata said that the outline of the platform “came out nice.” Once the team had the dimensions of the platform mapped out, they could move onto studying what was on the ground. For one thing, they could pinpoint the structure’s age, thanks to a bit of charcoal they found.
Experts performed radiocarbon dating on the charcoal, which revealed the material to be more than 3,000 years old. As such, Inomata believed that the people who came before the Classic-period Maya had built the structure. They had likely done so while drifting from camp to camp, hunting and gathering for sustenance.
As such, it doesn’t quite make sense why hunter-gatherers would take the time to build up a giant raised platform. But the experts believed that this project marked the beginning of their transition from a mobile lifestyle to lives lived in one place. To further prove that point, the team found evidence of corn cultivation on-site, too.
It was no small undertaking to build the platform, either, especially when the ancient construction workers had only their strength on which to rely. Inomata estimated that it would have taken about half a dozen years for 5,000 people to build up the mound if they were working full time.
But, to them, such an effort would have been worth the labor. Inomata told National Geographic magazine in June 2020, “We think this was a ceremonial center. It’s a place of gathering, possibly involving processions and other rituals we can only imagine.” He told TV news channel CNN, “The ritual possibly involved processions on the causeways, and the gathering of a large number of people in the rectangular plaza.”
It probably wasn’t just religion that inspired them to build the platform, either. Inomata theorized, “It was a place of gathering for the community, which probably motivated people to build it.” But other experts have looked at Aguada Fénix and seen something different. Specifically, there are varying opinions as to what the platform said about its builders’ living situation.
Archaeologist Jon Lohse, who wasn’t involved in the study, said, “The sheer size is astonishing.” But he countered that other populations similar to the early Maya built similar structures before they settled into one place. He explained, “Monumental constructions by pre-sedentary people are not uncommon globally.”
Lohse hypothesized that the people who built Aguada Fénix worked together and believed each other to be equals – a very common viewpoint in early societies. Inomata agreed with this point, adding that the people who created this massive platform in the middle of Tabasco likely did so without any social hierarchy.
Ultimately, the construction of Aguanda Fénix represented more than just teamwork. The University of Calgary’s Verónica Vázquez López, who co-authored the study, believed that the community building project was meant to bring Maya people together across generations. On-the-ground findings, such as discarded jade axes, point to the end of a collaborative work.
But for all of its stunning details, Aguada Fénix didn’t stand the test of time in the Maya community. By 750 B.C. – long before the people’s peak and decline – it fell out of use as they began to build higher and higher pyramids where only the elite could convene. As such, the platform represents an egalitarian period in history, one that may have been forgotten if not for LiDAR technology and a few pioneering archaeologists.