Lost Mayan “Megalopolis” Uncovered In The Jungles Of Guatemala

Published February 5, 2018
Updated April 25, 2018

At its peak, the newly discovered civilization probably held about 10 million people, and was roughly double the size of medieval England.


National GeographicThe megalopolis discovered using LiDAR technology.

In what they’re calling a “major breakthrough,” researchers have uncovered more than 60,000 houses, causeways, elevated highways and man-made structures, belonging to the ancient Maya Empire.

The remains of the civilization, which have been hidden under the canopy and plant life of the Guatemalan jungle for thousands of years, were finally unearthed due to a groundbreaking light-based imaging technology. Known as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging). Using LiDAR, researchers were able to digitally remove the canopy and surrounding flora from aerial images, and get a closer look at the structures underneath.

Researchers uncovered roughly 800 miles of forest, in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala, the largest area ever uncovered using LiDAR imaging.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist. Garrison specializes in using digital technology for archaeological exploration and is working on the digital excavation project.

Before the LiDAR project, the Maya civilization was believed to be less sophisticated than some of its counterparts. They never used wheels or beasts of burden, yet they built equally as expansive civilizations.

The Maya people, despite their lack of resources, were “literally moving mountains,” said Marcello Canuto, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who worked on the project.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” said Canuto. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America… we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

Despite the previous way of thinking, it seems that the Maya civilization did indeed flourish. At its peak, the civilization sprawled over an area twice as large as medieval England, and had a much larger population – estimated at 10 million or more.

“With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist working on the project.

In addition to mapping the area, the researchers on the project hope to raise awareness about the area’s historical significance. As more and more of Guatemala’s forests are being cleared for agriculture and settlement, more and more history is being cleared with it. The researchers hope that the discovery of the civilization will help protect the land it covers.

Next, check out another imaging technology that was used to find a hidden chamber in the Great Pyramid at Giza. Then, check out this ancient settlement found in Canada that’s older than the pyramids.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.