Unlocking the secrets of the Maya: technology reveals new discoveries about this ancient civilization

History is not a static, permanent record of the past — it is a living and changing story. New theories emerge and are explored; new technologies reveal astonishing discoveries. 

And new ideas in archeology, it seems, can come from anywhere. From his childhood home in Quebec, teenager William Gadoury developed a fascinating theory that ancient Maya cities were built based on coordinates of the constellations, leading him to an even more tantalizing hypothesis: that an ancient city remained undiscovered.

The Teenager and the Lost Maya City, a documentary from The Nature of Things, follows Gadoury deep into the Mexican jungle as he seeks to prove his theory right, once and for all, after working on it for almost a decade.

Gadoury was able to develop his theory using easily accessible mapping apps such as Google Earth and and ArcGIS to determine coordinates of where a Maya city should be, while more precise satellite imaging focused his search on the ground. 

And the potential of new technologies is just as fascinating. With each groundbreaking discovery, scientists are literally rewriting Maya history.

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli (L) and William Gadoury check GPS coordinates on a phone as they search for a missing Maya city in Mexico. Gadoury used Google Earth to help come up with a theory that the Maya built their cities based on constellations. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

The truth was there in the jungle, ‘we just couldn’t see’

The Maya civilization rose to prominence in the year 250 AD, although artifacts from these Indigenous peoples date back thousands of years earlier. Scientists have long studied their astronomical systems, architecture, calendars, hieroglyphic writing, farming practices, and extensive trade networks through dense jungle and swamps.

But in just the last 15 years, airborne lasers have led researchers to new discoveries that were once virtually invisible at ground level.

Light detection and ranging technology, called lidar, has revealed undiscovered ceremonial ruins, the oldest and largest Maya structure found to date, the “surprising complexity” of cities and their connections, and evidence of a sophisticated stone-working industry, not to mention nearly 500 new Mesoamerican sites, including those built by the Maya.

Kathryn Reese-Taylor, associate professor at the University of Calgary’s department of anthropology and archaeology, first heard about lidar technology in 2009. She completed her own lidar survey five years later and remembers the shock she experienced.

Professor of archeology Kathryn Reese-Taylor has spent 30 years in the field studying the Maya. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

“It was just mind-boggling that we could get all of this data just from this one flyover,” Reese-Taylor says. “We were just all so excited. And it just completely changed our research program. I mean, completely. There [was] no going back.”

It had previously taken her research teams three years to cover roughly 12 square kilometres of rainforest while developing a topographic map. With lidar, she mapped 100 square kilometres — yielding unparalleled revelations — in a couple days. Reese-Taylor wrote an article with colleagues about how the field of archeology was fundamentally changed forever.

“I remember teaching, less than 10 years ago, saying [the Maya] really use the waterways — the waterways were the roads for the Maya,” Reese-Taylor says. “They transported everything along the waterways, because, of course, getting through the rainforest is really hard. [That theory] was so wrong. We just couldn’t see.”

Mapping from the ground in the jungle, heavy with vegetation, researchers could feel small bumps or rises in the earth but didn’t realize what they were walking over.

“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just an undulation.’ And yet, you’re on a road,” Reese-Taylor says. “And now we can see them, and they’re everywhere. And they connect different parts of cities, and they also go between cities. So they’re really, really long. And suddenly we see the arteries of Maya transportation.”

DNA will unlock new discoveries

DNA analysis is another game-changing technology that offers exciting new opportunities in the field of archeology, Reese-Taylor says. Her collaborator and colleague David Lentz, from the University of Cincinnati, is leading this research, working with Trinity Hamilton at the University of Minnesota. 

Their recent work with DNA analysis has revealed surprising tree and plant species that the Maya cultivated in fields, orchards and gardens. It turns out, they were farming crops that we had no idea about until now.

I think it’s going to just get better and better. We’re going to be able to see more and more.​​​​​– Kathryn Reese-Taylor

“We’re beginning to understand, through this DNA analysis, a lot more about the way that the Maya managed their environments and their land use strategies, which were somewhat elusive to us,” Reese-Taylor says. 

“We’re really in kind of the infancy of that particular new technology and analysis. And I think it’s going to just get better and better. We’re going to be able to see more and more.”

‘If you can’t imagine it … you can’t really look for it’

As for Gadoury’s ultimate discovery of a farming hamlet deep in the Mexican jungle, Reese-Taylor says the structures hint at the “backbone” of the Maya’s long-term success: their ability to cultivate the land and feed large cities over millennia. 

In The Teenager and the Lost Maya City, William Gadoury (R) and an expert expedition team including archeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli (L) travel to Mexico to search for a Maya city deep in the Yucatan jungle. (CBC/The Teenager and the Lost Maya City)

Rainforest soil is notoriously shallow, she says, so the thriving Maya civilization was built on the ingenuity of farmers and their land use practices. One of the most exciting lidar discoveries was evidence of the “huge” Maya population, she adds. Surveys suggest they numbered in the millions instead of thousands. Feeding so many in a difficult region is a feat of science and smart agricultural planning.  

A lidar survey of Gadoury’s theorized sites has yet to be completed, Reese-Taylor says, but it will be scanned in the near future. She applauds him for starting his theory from his childhood bedroom years ago and following it deep into the jungle.

“What I admired most about William was his curiosity,” Reese-Taylor says. “I think that he showed a lot of curiosity as well as imagination. And I think imagination is really important in science, because if you can’t imagine it — if you can’t think of it — you can’t really look for it.”

Watch The Teenager and the Lost Maya City on The Nature of Things

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