Tulum ruins in Mexico. Image via Flickr user
Over the past couple of days, the internet has been captivated by a truly remarkable story: A plucky 15-year-old Quebec kid, using only his imagination, star charts, and some fancy satellite imagery, had found a lost Mayan city somewhere deep below the canopy of the Belize jungle.
First reported in the Montreal newspaper the Journal de Montréal on Saturday, William Gadoury's story seemed almost too good to be true. And it turns out, sadly, that it probably is.
Here's what happened.
Gadoury first became interested in the Mayans around the time of all that Mayan-calendar-end-of-the-world 2012 apocalypse stuff. His hobby soon grew into something more serious. After looking over texts and star charts found in the Madrid Codex, an ancient Mayan text outlining details of religious ceremonies as well as Mayan astrological charts, Gadoury came up with an interesting theory: that the Mayans founded their cities to correspond with the stars in 23 specific constellations.
"I couldn't understand why the Mayans built their cities far from rivers, on land that wasn't very fertile and was mountainous," he told the Journal. "There had to be another reason, and since I knew they worshipped the stars, I came up with the idea of trying out my hypothesis. I was really surprised and excited when I realized that the stars that shone the brightest corresponded with the biggest Mayan cities."
By overlaying star charts on top of a Google Earth map of the Yucatán Peninsula, Gadoury found evidence that he believes backs up his claim.
He proposed that theory at an international science fair in Quebec City in 2014, where it caught the eye of Daniel De Lisle, a project officer at the Canadian Space Agency.
"I'd never seen anything like it. I was in awe," he told VICE. Gadoury was also prepared to answer his skeptics. "He was ready. Everything was in both languages. There were two folders, one in English and one in French. He answered everything, and there were some very tough questions from our astrophysicists."
But then Gadoury noticed something was missing. The 117 known Mayan cities corresponded with the 23 constellations in the Mayan star charts, as his theory assumed they would. But there should have been 118 cities. He noticed that one star in a three-star constellation did not have a corresponding city. So where was it?
The CSA, along with JAXA, Japan's space agency, provided him with sophisticated satellite images of the Yucatán area taken by the RADARSAT-2 satellite. Gadoury then teamed up with remote sensing expert Dr. Armand Larocque from the University of New Brunswick, and armed with the coordinates of where he thought the missing city should be, they made a startling discovery last January.
"They saw some nice linear shapes," says De Lisle. "And it turns out there was a pyramid underneath the jungle canopy."
Not just a little pyramid: What Gadoury and Larocque found appeared to be an 86-foot pyramid as well as some 30 other structures. The entire complex is big enough to be counted among the five biggest Mayan cities ever discovered. Gadoury christened it K'ÀAK' CHI', meaning "Mouth of Fire," and internet famed followed. He hopes to visit the site with Mexican archaeologists sometime soon.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there.
Amid the excited reporting about Gadoury's find was a noticeable lack of input from Mayan archaeology and anthropology experts. Within a couple of days, they began to pipe up and pour cold water on Gadoury's discovery.
An anthropologist at a major Canadian university, who didn't want to be named, emailed VICE to call BS on Gadoury's discovery. "The rectangular feature seen on satellite is likely an old corn field (it's not the right shape to be a pyramid). There are indeed ancient Maya sites all over the place, and satellite imagery and LiDAR are being used to discover them, but this doesn't seem to be one of those cases…. The media really ought to wait until after a finding has passed through peer review before making announcements; this discovery would be unlikely to pass such review."
Thomas Garrison, an expert in remote sensing at USC Dornsife, wrote in Gizmodo that, "I applaud the young kid's effort, and it's exciting to see such interest in the ancient Maya and remote sensing technology in such a young person. However, ground-truthing is the key to remote sensing research. You have to be able to confirm what you are identifying in a satellite image or other type of scene. In this case, the rectilinear nature of the feature and the secondary vegetation growing back within it are clear signs of a relic milpa. I'd guess it's been fallow for ten to fifteen years."
David Stuart, an anthropologist at the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas at Austin, was less charitable. In a now-deleted Facebook post, he said, "The whole thing is a mess—a terrible example of junk science hitting the internet in free-fall. The ancient Maya didn't plot their ancient cities according to constellations. Seeing such patterns is a rorschach [sic] process, since sites are everywhere, and so are stars. The square feature that was found on Google Earth is indeed man-made, but it's an old fallow cornfield, or milpa."
Of course, it is possible the Mayan archaeology/anthropology academic community is populated by a bunch of dicks who are terrified and jealous that some kid has showed them all up. But it's looking less and less likely.
Sorry, William! You may not have discovered a Mayan city, but Garrison speaks for all of us when he writes that, "I hope that this young scholar will consider his pursuits at the university level so that his next discovery (and there are plenty to be made) will be a meaningful one."
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