Former BYU anthropology professor announces revolutionary Mayan discoveries


Historians and anthropologists always considered the Mayan civilization to be relatively small and peaceful. However, with the help of modern technology, scientists have found evidence in Guatemala that the Mayan civilization was much larger than previously believed.

The discovery was shared at the inaugural John L. Sorenson lecture, which took place Oct. 28 at the Hinckley Center on BYU campus. Scholars, students and Provo residents came to see what scientists found.

Stephen Houston, a former BYU anthropology professor, has been studying Mayan culture throughout his career. He said his travels have taken him through the jungle, where he had to cut leaves and clear paths to find ancient ruins. However, Houston said the work has changed dramatically because of Light Detection and Ranging technology.

Anthropologists use Light Detection and Ranging, also known as Lidar, to create visualizations — three-dimensional images, using infrared light. The device is set up on a plane or helicopter and flown systematically to cover the observed area. Some of the light given off by Light Detection and Ranging passes through trees and hits the jungle floor, allowing anthropologists to find ruins faster.

“Lidar is a profound gift to the advancement of science, and it extends our ability to sense the past,” Houston said. “The use of Lidar has been used to find entirely new cities. Lidar does more in one run than what 1,000 years of old-fashioned mapping can do.”

Former BYU professor Stephen Houston showed the difference between what is visible above the jungle with the human eye compared to Lidar images (Hannah Miner).

This technology has stripped away the jungle for the view of the scientists. However, Houston said that these pictures have not answered all of their questions, and instead provided more mystery about the Mayan people.

“There are maze-like elements to their buildings,” Houston said. “We have never noticed these before. They are features whose function is entirely unknown.”

Houston said one ground-breaking finding about Mayan civilization was the discovery about buildings being used for defense. Lidar images revealed the existence of moats, walls, fortresses and watch towers surrounding the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. These suggest that the Mayans were not as peaceful as once believed.

“We are now seeing probably the largest system of fortifications in ancient America,” Houston said. “We are finding evidence of the impact of the imperial footprint of a distant city called Teotihuacan near modern-day Mexico City.”

Houston said there is still a lot of research to be done, and that more discoveries will come with time. He appreciates the opportunity to work with his team and to collaborate with other hard-working scientists.

“The lone, fedora-clad Indiana Jones figure going off to loot a golden idol doesn’t exist,” Houston said. “This is a collaborative work where all of us function together. This is how the real work gets done.”

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