“Hidden in plain sight” is how archeologists described a recently revealed, 3,000- year-old Maya structure at the Aguada Fénix Mayan ruin in Mexico’s Tabasco State. The structure is the oldest on record, according to findings published in the Nature journal, and it managed to go unnoticed for so long because of its horizontal shape. With an aerial LiDAR scan, archeologists saw that there was more to the landscape than meets the eye. 

“In the jungle, you cannot really see large areas. If you walk through the jungle, that’s very hard. So usually we just survey only a small part of the site. Then if you use aerial photographs or satellite images, you mostly get images of trees,” explains Takeshi Inomata, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona, archeologist and the lead author of the project. “What’s interesting about this area that’s in Tabasco, Mexico, is that it is pretty much deforested. So, if you walked there, it looks like just a natural landscape, and you cannot recognize this construction shape. That’s why this site was not known, even to people living in that region. But this huge construction came out very nicely in LiDar.”

Maya LiDAR data scan

The National Center for Air-borne Laser Mapping (NCALM) conducted a high-resolution LiDAR survey and the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) conducted a low-resolution LiDAR survey to reveal 21ceremonial centres in a standardized spatial configuration, which archeologists call the “Middle Formative Usumacinta (MFU)” pattern.

In his time, the affect aerial LiDar has had on archeology has been “large,” says Inomata. Here, he shares why.

What does this discovery change about what we know about Maya civilizations?

The site we found dates to the beginning of Maya civilization. It is an enormous site, actually the biggest structure in the entire history of the Maya era. So, early days, people thought the development of the Maya civilization was gradual. First, you have transition to sedentary way of life, the use of ceramics. Then the size of the community grows gradually, and you start to have social hierarchy and the point of centralization. With that, you get large buildings. That was the idea.

And now?

But now what we are finding is that the big buildings appeared really at the beginning, almost at the time of transition from mobile way of life to sedentary way of life. Before the development of marked social hierarchy or establishment of Buddhas. So that really changes our understanding of the development of Maya civilization and also human society in general.

Is there any estimation as to possibly how tall the buildings were?

This platform, what we call plateau, is about 10 to 15 meters high. But the horizontal dimensions is 2400 meters by 400 meters, so the height is not that much compared to horizontal dimensions. Then, on top of this plateau, there are some mounds 10 meters high.

So later, Maya civilizations, Maya cities, have lots of tall pyramids. That’s very obvious if you go there you can see them. But this site was horizontally large so it’s not so obvious if you go there.

What do these findings tell us about the development of our society?

Our society came much later, so it’s very difficult to say. But in many parts of the world, people thought that the civilization goes through these kind of stages, sedentary, gradual growth, then political change and big structure. But in other parts of the world, too, there are new findings that show that there were large buildings at the early stage.

So that really tells us that the many large constructions do not have to come from organization by rulers or central governments. People can get together, and then make huge buildings. So, in that sense, yes, similar things can happen within our society. People can get together independent of central government and achieve major things.