Archaeologists Discover Huge Lost Civilization in Guatemala

A new survey revealed nearly 1,000 Maya settlements, with pyramids and ballcourts, that date back more than 2,000 years.

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a vast ancient Maya civilization that flourished more than 2,000 years ago in northern Guatemala, reports a new study. This long-lost urban web encompassed nearly 1,000 settlements across 650 square miles, linked by an immense causeway system, which was mapped out with airborne laser instruments, known as LiDAR.

The results of the LiDAR survey “unveiled a remarkable density of Maya sites” in Guatemala’s Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin (MCKB) that “challenges the old notion of sparse early human occupation” in this area during the “Preclassical” period spanning 1,000 BC to 150 AD, according to a study published this month in the journal Cambridge Core.


Scientists led by Richard Hansen, an archaeologist at Idaho State University and the director of the Mirador Basin Project, offer “an introduction to one of the largest, contiguous, regional LiDAR studies published to date in the Maya Lowlands,” a region that covers parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, according to the study.

“The LiDAR survey revealed an extraordinary density and distribution of Maya sites concentrated in the MCKB, many of them linked directly or indirectly by a vast causeway network” that includes 110 miles of raised roads, the researchers continued, noting that the sprawling civilization hints at “labor investments that defy organizational capabilities of lesser polities and potentially portray the strategies of governance in the Preclassic period.”

LiDAR is a remote-sensing technology that bounces lasers off of surfaces in order to generate detailed maps that are based on the time it takes for the pulses to return to a receiver. This method has revolutionized archaeology, among many other fields, because it can expose signs of past human activity that may be buried under dense vegetation—a very common problem for Maya researchers—or is otherwise undetectable to traditional fieldwork on the ground.

Hansen and his colleagues flew airborne LiDAR devices over the MCKB for years at altitudes of about 2,000 feet to search for hidden traces of ancient settlements. To their delight, the survey uncovered “dense concentrations of new and previously unknown contemporaneous sites” including “massive platform and pyramid constructions” that suggest the presence of a centralized and complex political structure, according to the study.

These constructions include dozens of ballcourts for playing Mesoamerican sports and a complex water management system of canals and reservoirs. The team also probed the remains of the 230-foot-tall pyramid of Danta, located in the Maya metropolis of El Mirador, which served as a major public attraction and the epicenter for several causeways.

“Depending on the natural configurations of the bedrock below the structure, the entire building could have had as much as 6,000,000 to 10,000,000 person-days of labor, exceeding the capacity of polities of lower hierarchical political and economic status, and suggesting a high level of organization as the sociopolitical and economic patron of such prodigious growth,” Hansen and his colleagues said in the study.

The dazzling new discovery sheds light on the people who lived in the bustling cities of this forested basin for more than 1,000 years. Hansen and his team hope that future research will continue to unlock the secrets of this ancient civilization, and perhaps discover new settlements that have remained hidden for many centuries.

“The skeleton of the ancient political and economic structure as a kingdom-state in the Middle and Late Preclassic periods has a tantalizing presence in the Mirador-Calakmul Karst Basin,” the team concluded.