Laser Scans Reveal Ancient Maya ‘Megalopolis’


A vast, interconnected network of ancient cities was home to millions more people than previously thought. (National Geographic)

Use our resources to learn more about the Maya and space archaeology!

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This illustration of Tikal, a major city of the Classic Maya period, may need to be updated with less jungle forestation and more wide avenues, canals, and elevated walkways.
Painting by Peter E. Spier, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • Archaeologists made a “major breakthrough” in their study of the ancient Maya. Who are the Maya?
    • “Maya” describes many groups of indigenous peoples native to northern Central America. Maya peoples are ethnically and culturally diverse, but are connected by shared history and language.
      • “They have endured, outlasting climate catastrophe, the collapse of their civilization, and, later, conquest by Europeans,” says one historian.
    • Maya civilization was a complex, pre-Columbian society that developed and thrived in Central America for more than a thousand years.


  • Space archaeologists” made their discoveries using LiDAR technology. What is LiDAR?
    • LiDAR, short for “light detection and ranging”, is a method of detecting distant objects and determining their position, velocity, volume, or other characteristic by analysis of pulsed laser light reflected from their surfaces. LiDAR is sometimes called 3D scanning or laser scanning.
      • LiDAR is frequently used to create high-resolution maps used in geology, the military, seismology, forestry, and laser-guidance systems. LiDAR is sometimes used for navigation in self-driving vehicles.
      • In this case, LiDAR was able to help scholars digitally remove the tree canopy from an area in northern Guatemala. The densely forested region is now unpopulated, but 1,200 years ago (during the Classic Maya period) it was a sprawling, complex urban area of more than a million residents.
      • “LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” says one expert.


  • What was the breakthrough that has historians and archaeologists so excited?
    • LiDAR helped archaeologists identify about 60,000 houses, tombs, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala.
    • Archaeologists always knew the region was an urban area, but they had no idea how densely populated it was, and how strong the infrastructure sustaining the region was.
      • How densely populated?
        • “‘Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around 5 million,’ says one expert. ‘With this new data it’s no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there—including many living in low-lying, swampy areas that many of us had thought uninhabitable.’”
      • What infrastructure?
        • A network of raised roads and highways connecting trading centers, population areas, administrative and spiritual centers, and quarries where construction material was excavated.
        • Terraced irrigation systems that supported intensive agriculture capable of feeding masses of workers.
        • A network of defensive walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses.



The Maya city-state of Palenque was not one of the cities studied by LiDAR, but is a dazzling example of Classic Maya civilization.
Map by National Geographic



Nat Geo: Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

Nat Geo: The Mesoamericans hi-res map

Nat Geo: Ancient Mesoamerica hi-res map

NOAA: What is LiDAR?

Nat Geo: Maya Rise and Fall magazine features

Nat Geo: Quest for the Lost Maya educational resources

Nat Geo: Space Archaeology profile


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