Maya civilization was no mere collection of city states using slash-and-burn farming—that we learned earlier this year. Now archaeologists are looking deeper into an airborne survey that revealed a formidable civilization double the size of medieval England at its peak 1,200 years ago, Ars Technica reports. The survey, which used LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) to peek beneath the jungle foliage, revealed some 61,000 buildings, draining canals, fortresses, and roads across roughly 828 square miles. What archaeologists are saying about those details in Science:
- Population: About 7 million to 11 million people populated the central Maya Lowlands—an area including some of Belize, Guatemala, and Yucatan—between 650 and 800 CE, the Late Classic Period. How did researchers crunch that number? By counting the structures per square mile and estimating how many were houses. Big cities like Tikal likely had hundreds of people per square mile, per Discovery.
- Farming: A huge agricultural effort was needed to keep all those mouths fed, LiveScience notes. Imagine a complex grid of channels providing flood control and irrigation, with grids up to six feet wide and 20 inches deep, some stretching over half a mile. Still, densely populated cities like Naachtun and Tikal had to import food from other Maya kingdoms to survive.
- Causeways: In earlier Maya times, from 1000 to 250 BCE, cities were linked by elevated roads or causeways up to 65 feet wide and up to 13 miles in length—but they fell into disuse when so-called Preclassic cities were abandoned. Yet their faded ghost outlines are visible on the LIDAR.
- Fortresses: Mayans built more of them than expected in the Late Classic Period, and sophisticated ones, too. One has walls over 25 feet high and an Olympic-pool-size reservoir: "In other words, this place was ready for a siege," says Ithaca College archaeologist Tom Garrison. "That is not really the type of conflict that we think about for the ancient Maya."
- Overall: "Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable," a Tulane researcher says in a statement.
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