Nearly 500 Mesoamerican Monuments Revealed by Laser Mapping

Scientists have uncovered nearly 500 Mesoamerican monuments in southern Mexico using an airborne laser mapping technology called lidar.

Dating as far back as 3000 years ago, the structures—still buried beneath vegetation—include huge artificial plateaus that may have been used for ceremonial gatherings and other religious events.

“The sheer number of sites they found is staggering,” says Thomas Garrison, an archeologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who was not involved in the work. “The study is going to be the inspiration for hopefully decades of research at these different settlements.”

The team’s effort stemmed from its smaller scale lidar survey and excavation of the oldest and largest Maya structure ever found, reported in Nature last year. The ancient Maya civilization occupied southern Mexico and parts of Central America and is renowned for its striking pyramids, written language, and calendar system. That site, dubbed Aguada Fénix, was dated to 1000 to 800 B.C.E., and contained an artificial plateau 1400 meters long and up to 15 meters high. This plateau had 10 smaller platforms flanking either side for a total of 20—the basis for many Mesoamerican cultures’ number system.

The number 20 is also important in the Mesoamerican cosmology and calendar, and the same pattern of a large plateau flanked by smaller platforms appears at other sites in the immediate region, suggesting a wider cultural pattern.

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