Astonishing Scale of Ancient Maya Metropolis Revealed by Laser Scans
Using a scanning and imaging technology with broad applications in the archaeological field, an international team of researchers discovered fresh and eye-opening details about a famous Maya metropolis in southern Mexico.
During an aerial survey of the ancient Maya city of Calakmul, which lies partially in ruins in the Campeche forest of the central lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula, the researchers deployed LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser scanning technology to collect precise data on various surface features over an area covering 37 square miles (95 sq. km.).
When they mapped the data points they’d harvested later on, they were delighted to discover telltale indicators that revealed the existence of man-made structures that had never been detected in Calakmul before.
Ruins of the Maya metropolis known as Calakmul, which was discovered in Mexico’s Yucatan in 1931. (Tommaso Lizzul / Adobe Stock)
Details Emerge of Immense Maya Metropolis
“By using LiDAR imagery, we are now able to fully understand the immense size of the Calakmul urban settlement and its substantial landscape modifications, which supported an intensive agricultural system,” Dr. Kathryn Reese-Taylor, the leader of the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, said in a University of Calgary press release, her employer and the sponsor of the Bajo Laberinto initiative at Calakmul.
“All available land was covered with water canals, terraces, walls and dams, no doubt to provide food and water security for Calakmul residents,” explained Reese-Taylor when discussing the Maya metropolis. It seems there were more Calakmul residents during the Maya Classical Period (250 to 900 AD) than had previously been thought.
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Many of the newly discovered structures were not located on the outskirts of the city, but within its already established borders, nestled in among other buildings and construction projects. This has forced archaeologists who study the Maya civilization to reevaluate what they thought they knew about the size and density of Calakmul.
In the past, it was believed that the legendary city of Tikal, in what is now northern Guatemala, was the most densely settled Maya metropolis. But based on the latest LiDAR discoveries, it appears Calakmul was even more densely populated than its neighbor and rival city to the south.
Three-dimensional representation of the center of Calakmul. (INAH)
LiDAR Leads the Way at the Maya Metropolis of Calakmul
LiDAR is an advanced aerial imaging technology that uses non-harmful laser beams to perform detailed scans of objects on the ground or deformations in the landscape. It can provide outlines of surface features of all types, including those associated with archaeological ruins.
From the data accumulated during LiDAR scans, archaeologists can create three-dimensional models that reveal everything that is visible above ground at archaeological sites. Because LiDAR technology is so sensitive it can oftentimes pick up features that were missed during on-the-ground investigations, and that is what happened in this case.
The new LiDAR aerial survey of the Campeche forest and the Calakmul site was carried out by personnel from the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, in coordination with experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Other mapping and archaeological surveys sponsored by INAH had already shown that the Maya settlement at Calakmul was much larger and denser than earlier research had suggested. Therefore the archaeologists involved in this new study anticipated finding at least some new signs of Maya building activity. Nevertheless, the scope of what they discovered was truly breathtaking.
Their findings included huge apartment-style housing complexes, some of which included as many 60 individual living spaces. These residential complexes were grouped around large assemblages of shrines, temples, and marketplaces, revealing just how active and densely populated Calakmul was during its time of peak prosperity during the last three centuries of the Maya Classical Period. None of this housing had been identified before, which is why the researchers knew there were more people living in ancient Calakmul that had previously been suspected.
“We were also able to see that the magnitude of landscape modification equaled the scale of the urban population,” Dr. Reese-Taylor explained, linking constantly-expanding agricultural activities and water transport systems with the city’s growth in occupation levels.
Cutting-edge scan technology has revealed hereto unknown details about the Maya metropolis of Calakmul in Mexico’s Yucatan province. (INAH)
The Great City of Calakmul, Then and Now
The sprawling metropolis of Calakmul was one of the foremost cities associated with the Maya Classical Period. Rivaled only in its region by the city of Tikal, Calakmul was a political, religious, cultural, and trading mecca, a wealthy and prosperous Maya metropolis created by a Mesoamerican civilization known for its city-building propensity.
Calakmul functioned as the capital city of the powerful fiefdom created by the ferocious Snake King (Kanu’l) dynasty, who from 635 to 850 maintained control of a conglomeration of vassal kingdoms that extended across the Yucatan Peninsula. Interestingly, Calakmul was not the name given to the city by its actual inhabitants. The Maya who lived there named their settlement Ox Te Tuun, which meant “Three Stones” in the Maya language.
The name Calakmul, which translates to “City of Two Adjacent Pyramids,” was given to the urban settlement by an American botanist named Cyrus Lundell, who discovered its ruins while exploring in the Campeche forest in 1931. The name acknowledged the two central pyramids that are and were the ancient city’s most remarkable landmarks.
When the Maya Classical Period ended, many Maya settlements were abandoned abruptly, for reasons that remain obscure. This is exactly the fate that befell Calakmul, which was occupied until the mid-9th century but apparently for no longer after that.
Thanks to decades of archaeological excavations, however, now aided by high-quality laser scanning equipment, modern researchers have uncovered much valuable information about how the city of Calakmul was built and how people survived there in such large numbers. Previous estimates placed the peak population of Calakmul at about 50,000, but it seems this may have been an underestimation, and perhaps a fairly significant one.
In the months and years to come, the results of the latest and future LiDAR surveys will be used by INAH to help create a comprehensive plan that will ensure tourism in the area remains sustainable and non-destructive. LiDAR will also be further used by the members of the international Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, which was formed to investigate how rapid population growth at Calakmul affected the natural environment. “We’re excited to see what else this technology will help us learn about Calakmul,” Dr. Reese-Taylor stated when discussing the Maya metropolis. “It’s such a privilege to be unearthing the secrets of Mexico’s ancient settlements.”
Top image: Images resulting from the Calakmul LiDAR survey performed in Mexico. Source: INAH
By Nathan Falde