NASA recently released an extraordinary image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that captures “the fire and fury of star birth,” according to the space agency. In the image appears approximately 15,000 galaxies, and 12,000 of them are forming stars.
Very cool, but what’s so significant besides being another really cool picture of outer space with a bunch of far-away galaxies? For starters, the area captured in the image is 14 times greater than that of the 2014 Hubble Ultra Violet Ultra Deep Field image, a similar composite image that combines various types of electromagnetic radiation. This kind of energy radiates out in various frequencies, from lower frequencies like harmless radio waves to dangerous high-frequency gamma radiation and everything in between, most notably the visible light we depend on to see.
It takes eight minutes for light from the sun to hit earth. This same constant speed applies also to light originating in far-away galaxies, so the light captured by the image actually records both close by and far away galaxies’ electromagnetic signature, which was emitted up to 11 billion years ago! During that time, some three billion years after the big bang, science tells us, the universe was undergoing one of its major star-forming eons. The implication is that scientists now have one of the most comprehensive pictures of how stars were formed.
The image, like the 2014 image, was formed by combining three kinds of electromagnetic radiation we receive from the cosmos: ultraviolet light, visible light, and infrared light. The Earth’s atmosphere filters out much ultraviolet light, so the Hubble Space Telescope in outer space has an important role in showing us things we cannot see normally looking up at the night sky. Scientists were missing the ultraviolet light for a more complete picture of what outer space can tell us about the universe.
How does that work? Keep in mind that all sorts of electromagnetic radiation are emitted by these galaxies. Because of the universe’s expansion since the Big Bang, the galaxies oldest and furthest away only show infrared light, even if originally ultraviolet light was emitted. This phenomenon occurs due to redshift, which occurs when a wave’s place of origin and the observer grow farther apart, reducing the frequency of the wave.
The observed wave moves into the red spectrum, visible light’s lowest frequency. By comparing the data between the ultraviolet light of closer galaxies, scientists get a comprehensive picture of the ongoing formation of stars since 11 billion years ago.
Architects of Their Own Demise?
Researchers and historians alike have regarded the Mayan people as some of the most important architects of the last few thousand years. It has been a long time since this mysterious civilization met its demise. However, archeologists are unearthing many stone structures in Central America, which have a variety of purposes attached to them. These include pyramids, sports arenas, and palaces, to name a few. And yet, new technology is leading to the discovery of many more…
A Mysterious Past
Truth be told, the many discoveries that archeologists have made about the Mayan culture are only fragmented pieces of a much larger picture. There is still a long way to go to complete this puzzle. One of the biggest factors in obstructing researchers’ progress is time itself. An entire jungle has grown over where the empire once was and any kind of survey, whether it be in the air or on land, has proven to be inconclusive of any further discovery of what lies beneath…
Truth Lies Beneath the Surface
It has taken many years for researchers to simply scratch the surface of the Mayan civilization and its rich history. Through the structures that were previously discovered, archeologists were able to draw some conclusions about how the Mayans lived. However, the technology at their disposal was somewhat limited in the past, which has led modern researchers to believe that there is so much more that lies beneath the surface of the Yucatan jungle. Now, an opportunity has presented itself…
Preserving the Culture
Not only do foreign organizations recognize the significance of these potential discoveries. Researchers reached the early stages of a project that they expected would take three years to complete. PACUNAM, which is an organization located in Guatemala, is determined to preserve the cultural heritage of this majestic part of the world, including its Mayan history. When everything is said and done, the organization would have explored more than 5,000 square miles of the Guatemalan jungles. But they face some big challenges…
Nothing New to Looters
PACUNAM has a number of short term and long term goals. One of the long term ones is to ensure that all of the sites it explores are preserved and maintained. Unfortunately, looters have created a number of pits over time. “Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters,” Marianne Hernandez said, who is the president of PACUNAM. Not to mention the fact that 10 percent of Guatemala’s forests are being cut down every year.
One Giant Leap
While archeology is usually mistaken for purely being about digging to find discoveries below the ground, it’s never been that simple. And it’s certainly not that simple anymore with the latest technology. LiDAR, which is an acronym for Light Imaging Detection and Ranging, is able to penetrate through many layers of earth and trees to find what’s hiding underneath. This begs the question: in what way has LiDAR revolutionized the way that archeology works and how does it pertain to this particular discovery?
Time for Radar Tech
The name LiDAR is enough to indicate what it’s purpose actually is. Basically, it is a type of radar that can be installed onto a piece of aircraft, like a plane or a helicopter. When the aircraft in question is gliding over a specific destination, LiDAR shoots hundreds of thousands of laser pulses per second. “Every time one of those lasers hits a point of resistance, it stops and sends back a measurement to the plane,” Thomas Garrison said, who is an archeologist at Ithaca College.
A Map of the Jungle
After LiDAR collects the data from below, it is able to convert it into something remarkable – a 3D map depicting the original landscape under all of the trees and earth. The way this works is actually pretty simple. It sends pulses to the forest floor and eliminates all of the features from the jungle. It would be as if a photoshop expert was able to crop all of the trees out of a map. But how did they use it in this investigation?
Using LiDAR Technology in Guatemala
It was just a matter of time before researchers took the LiDAR tech and tried it out on the forest beds of northern Guatemala. With 770 square miles of land that hadn’t been properly explored for thousands of years, this was a huge opportunity. “This is a gamechanger,” Thomas Garrison said. He believes that it has completely changed “the base level at which we do Maya archaeology.” One discovery that stood out to the team was actually made many years beforehand…
Discovering the Fortress
Garrison claimed that his team had already entered a Mayan fortress before he had even heard of LiDAR technology. The catch was that they didn’t recognize it due to all of the trees and earth surrounding it. “There was this fortress in our area,” he said. “In 2010, I was within 150 feet of this thing.” Seeing that the forest had camouflaged the entire fortress, they didn’t even know they had stepped foot in one. And that wasn’t all they found…
Prepared for Battle
One thing that the archeologists were fascinated about by the scans was the many other fortresses and walls that they discovered. They also found moats, which suggested that the Mayans had been involved in many more wars than had been previously anticipated. Moreover, they had the resources to protect themselves from enemies. Thanks to the LiDAR, Garrison now had a new insight into how well prepared for battle the Mayans were. And yet this was just one of many key insights they made about the newly discovered Mayan structures…
Living in High Places
One interesting insight that was made was that many of the Mayan people lived in high places. Literally, they lived high above the ground in stone platform structures that they spent many years building. Diane Davies, who is a specialist in Mayan history is thoroughly impressed. “To have such a large number of people living at such a high level for such a long period of time,” she said. “It really proves the fact that these people were highly developed, and also quite environmentally conscientious.”
So Many Structures
It didn’t take too long before the LiDAR technology unveiled no less than 60,000 Mayan structures. It wasn’t just the number of structures that took the researchers by surprise, but also the close attention to detail that the people had to make such an intricate complex. No previous discovery had emphasized just how advanced the Mayan people actually were. It also suggested that there might be other cities like this one that had not been discovered yet. Also, the population might’ve been much bigger…
More Mayans Than Expected
Not only was the Mayan population expected to be much greater after these findings, but one researcher was able to give a clear estimation. “The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” Thomas Garrison said. Based on the information he had put together, Garrison is convinced that the population was more like 20 million, as opposed to the previous estimations of 1-2 million. But why?
Many More Farms
There is no denying that the kind of structures that archeologists have recently discovered has shifted their estimations of how many Mayan people there actually were. One of the most important purposes that these structures seemed to be used for was for farming. In fact, there were a number of signs that suggested that this was the case. The most obvious one being that numerous structures resemble irrigation and terracing systems. It was clear that the Mayans knew how to be self-sufficient and provide in bulk.
While the LiDAR technology didn’t exactly provide any more information surrounding the way in which the Mayan people farmed, it certainly didn’t contradict any of the previous findings researchers had previously made surrounding this aspect of Mayan life. Like any great empire that came before or after, farming was one of the most important activities for the Mayan people. Unlike many other civilizations though, they didn’t use beasts to do the work for them. As a result, they would do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves.
An Absolute Gamechanger
There was no denying that these discoveries shook the world of archeology to its very foundations. The fact that there was evidence that the Mayans were using highways that were hundreds of miles long was a staggering finding. It appeared that they would transport huge pieces of stone down these highways to their desired destinations. This opened up how researchers perceived the way civilizations were generally created. One researcher was able to hit home just how important this is…
They Moved Mountains
Tulane University archeologist Marcello Canuto was heavily involved in the project. According to him, recent discoveries prove that this was more than just an engineering marvel – it was a small miracle. The fact that the Mayan people were able to move such heavy objects proved how strong they were. “This was a civilization that was literally moving mountains,” he said. “We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die.”
Uncovering Other Civilizations
While the following is unsurprising, Canuto deduced from his findings that researchers could trace the origins of the first ancient civilizations back to the jungle. After also using LiDAR technology on Angkor Wat’s ancient ruins, this only reaffirmed the researchers’ theories. “But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat,” Canuto said, “we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”
Following the LiDAR
It is clear that LiDAR technology is at the forefront of ushering archeology into a new era. There is no telling what other awesome discoveries it could help make. Not only are the inventors of LiDAR extremely proud of their creation, but those who are able to use it have found a new lease of life in what they do. This technology can now be used throughout the world’s remaining jungles to uncover all sorts of hidden secrets. Who knows what the Congo Basin and the Amazon might be hiding?
Many More Purposes
Researchers like Thomas Garrison are excited about the possibilities that LiDAR could bring. However, he firmly believes that people from a variety of other industries will benefit from the technology. As a matter of fact, he has only used a few of the features that LiDAR possesses. “We don’t use about 92% of the LiDAR data. We just throw it out to make our maps,” he said. “But there is incredibly valuable information in that forestry data.”
Saving the World’s Forest
It is clear that the way that LiDAR is able to closely examine the conditions of jungle and forests is one of its core benefits. This is bound to provide a number of benefits from an environmental point of view, such as preventing forest fires. “You’re just seeing the archaeology part because that’s what we focused on,” Thomas Garrison said. “But that data can be used to determine how jungles recover from forest fires, what’s the carbon footprint.” And there are others who are bound to be happy…
It Brought Archeologists to Tears
From a sentimental point of a view, the findings have certainly made many archeologists extremely emotional, especially after spending so much of their lives trying to unearth the truth about the Mayan people. “I think this is one of the greatest advances in over 150 years of Maya archaeology,” Brown University’s Professor of Archeology and Anthropology Stephen Huston said. “I know it sounds hyperbolic but when I saw the [LiDAR] imagery, it did bring me to tears.”
Still More Work to Do
Despite this incredible breakthrough, many researchers believe there is still a long way to go before they fully understand LiDAR’s technology and the data it has collected. “Lidar is revolutionizing archeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” Francisco Estrada-Belli said, who is an archeologist at Tulane University. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.” With that said, there are plenty of obstacles that current and future LiDAR uses will face…
Despite its success, there is one big problem that LiDAR brings when it comes to uncovering Mayan ruins. “The tricky thing about LiDAR is that it gives us an image of 3,000 years of Mayan civilization in the area, compressed,” Thomas Garrison said. “It’s a great problem to have though, because it gives us new challenges as we learn more about the Maya.” And yet, that is only scratching the surface of the problems that archeologists could potentially face moving forward…
Lots of Danger
While there was no denying that this was a big breakthrough, there were plenty of dangers that lay ahead for the archeologists. LiDAR was only the first step of a much bigger problem. Engineer Albert Yu-Min Lin still needed to explore all of the jungles to make sure that all of the data was correct. In order to do this, they needed to evade scorpions, poisonous snakes and killer bees. This certainly was not an easy task…
Three Key Steps
In order to understand how LiDAR technology works, look no further than the following image. One can break down the process into three clear steps. The first step sees the plane shooting lasers to the ground. Then the second step sees the lasers reflect from the highest surfaces, allowing some to travel through gaps to lower ones. And the third and final step sees the technology converting the lasers into topographic scans. And that is how the maps are formed.
Discovering the Lowlands
Another benefit of LiDAR technology is its potential to reveal where the success of Mayans might have actually come from. Mapping from the lasers showed that some of the areas below were much bigger and more intricate in construction than a lot of the others. One specific area that has caught the eye of a number of researchers is the lowlands. “These features are so extensive that it makes us start to wonder,” Thomas Garrison said. “Is this the breadbasket of the Maya lowlands?”
So Many Descendants
One important detail in light of these findings is the nature of Mayan life in the present day. Despite its ancient empire ending long ago, there are still plenty of people living today who descended from the Mayans. Moreover, they still live in this part of the world. Out of Guatemala’s 14.3 million people, it is believed that 42% of them descended from the ancient Mayans. Also, there are 20-30 million Mayan descendants living in neighboring countries such as Belize, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
There is no denying that the Mayans performed some sort of miracle from what they built. When you consider the fact that they had no wheels, no livestock and no metal tools, it’s amazing how much they were able to achieve. Moreover, they lived in very poor conditions during this transitionary period. Their homes were often surrounded by swamps and they’d usually suffer from heavy storms. This did not stop them from persevering though and creating a megacity.
More Than One City
Outsiders might be forgiven if they assumed that the Mayan civilization could trace its roots back to one city. However, that simply wasn’t the case and this ancient empire had prosperous communities in a variety of cities across ancient Guatemala. Each city had its own government, meaning that there were plenty of times in Mayan history when these cities would wage war against each other. Some of the most famous cities include the likes of Tikal, El Mirador, and Caracol, to name a few.
Preserving El Mirador
While the Mayan empire came to an end around 900 A.D., the city of El Mirador had its golden years long before that. Having been abandoned and eventually reoccupied, the ancient city had its final abandonment around the same time of the Mayan’s mysterious disappearance. Several thousand structures remain, which are believed to have formed some of the earliest political centers in Mesoamerica. Due to its remote location, El Mirador isn’t the most popular Mayan tourist site, but the government is working hard to conserve its structures.
The Iconic Tikal
Out of all of the Mayan cities, Tikal is arguably the most iconic of them all. It is one of the largest archeological sites in Mayan history and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. At one point, Tikal was home to one of the Mayans most powerful kingdoms. The rulers of the city dominated much of the Mayan region and were the biggest political and military power for hundreds of years. Many of the tombs of Tikal’s rulers have been discovered, as well as numerous temples and palaces.
As previously mentioned, many Mayan descendants can be found in neighboring countries such as Mexico and Belize. Well, it turns out that one of the most important archeological sites can be found in the Cayo District of Belize – specifically, Caracol. Located 500 meters above sea level, Caracol was one of the most important political centers of the Mayan lowlands and covered an area that is much larger than modern-day Belize City. But what have archeologists actually found in Caracol?
In 2009, archeologists used LiDAR technology to cover 80 square miles of Caracol. “Everybody told us we were nuts, that it wouldn’t work,” co-director Arlen Chase said. “Caracol is over 200 square kilometers. Trying to convince our colleagues of that in 2009 was impossible without the LiDAR.” Results from the technology showed that the city was much bigger than they had previously anticipated. A number of structures hidden underneath the jungle, as well as causeways, were discovered. Another fine example of the Mayan people’s engineering capabilities.
Ever since these research teams perused the lowlands to cross-reference their results from LiDAR technology, they have made some pretty amazing observations. Take this photo for example, which shows the top of a temple that has been buried by natural forces over time. It is located in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in El Petén and there are believed to be thousands of others just like this. This begs the question though: why so many? And what were they used for?
What Were They Used For?
It’s not that difficult to work out what the Mayan temples were used for. As religion was such an important element of their lives, Mayans built these towering structures primarily for ritualistic purposes. These temples usually had stone platforms and altars inside. Usually, an image of the god of the city would be painted on the wall behind the platform. Speaking of gods, there was a certain individual who was called upon to act as a conduit between the heavenly bodies and the mere mortals…
It’s a tradition that can be seen in many cultures throughout human history, and yet it also applied to the Mayan people. Kings weren’t just a figure of authority or a fancy individual to look at. The Mayans also believed that they were holy figures that acted as a bridge between the people and the gods. It was widely believed that if there were no kings, then the connection between the gods would be broken forever. This is why they seemed to be involved in all of the rituals…
A Place to Carry Out Justice
If there was one thing that the Mayan people were passionate about, it was carrying out justice. Those who committed crimes would often be sacrificed in front of a live audience. Not only were they made an example of in front of their people, but it was also seen as an offering to the gods. The death penalty applied to a variety of crimes. However, there were some punishments that weren’t as severe. Some criminals would simply get fined. Others might get sent to slavery or have their hair cut off.
Making the Ultimate Sacrifice for Heaven
It was not just the kings who were able to communicate with the gods. Priests also had high authority, although kings would usually have the final say when it came to spiritual matters. For Mayans, heaven was the ultimate destination to strive towards and certain means such as sacrifice and dying at childbirth were seen as ideal ways to get there. Inside the temples, there were altars and stone platforms that priests would use to make sacrifices.
One of Many Powerful Civilizations
Of course, any historian knows that the Mayans weren’t the only powerful civilization in the Mesoamerican region over the last few thousand years. The Aztec and Inca civilizations were also forces to be reckoned with, having their own impressive engineering abilities and rich cultures. And yet, there was something about the way that Mayan kings were treated that seems to make them stand out from the rest. According to records and artifacts, the slaves would carry royal figures around so that they wouldn’t have to walk.
A Day in the Life Of…
Mayan life wasn’t all about living in fear of the king and witnessing offerings to the gods. The Mayan people also had relatively enjoyable lives if they adhered to the rules. Depending on your class, you would probably have a specific kind of job. Peasants would usually work in farms, while others would manufacture tools. Women would typically be expected to clean, cook, and weave the family’s clothes. Mayans also took dancing very seriously, with a number of dances still being performed until this very day.
Difference in Accomodation
It should not come as too much of a surprise that Mayan homes varied in size and structure depending on who they were built for. If you were a peasant or a commoner with a modest job, you would probably have no choice but to build your own home. These would usually be built our of mud and would probably have one room. Then there were noblemen or royal figures who unsurprisingly, would live in the stone palaces.
Differences in Clothing
You could also tell the status of a Mayan individual depending on what they wore. Clothes and jewelry were a way of showing off to those around you. If you were wealthy, you would probably be sporting some kind of feather headgear and animal skin. Commoners, on the other hand, would most likely wear simple attire such as loincloth and long skirts. Both men and women would wear long cloaks called “mantas.” Wearing big hats was also a way of proving that you were of high status.
Historians and locals have managed to trace back exactly the kind of foods that the ancient Mayan people would eat. It is no secret that these people were huge fans of chocolate, believing that it was a gift from the gods. As a result, they introduced cacao to the world. That’s not all though. The Mayan people also introduced the world to a variety of fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, black beans, papayas, and tomatoes, to name a few.
An Absolute Goldmine
It’s not just LiDAR technology that has led to some truly remarkable discoveries from the ancient Mayan world in recent times. A team of researchers found a cave full of lost treasure hidden under Mayan ruins in Yucatan’s Chichen Itza. The cave is believed to have 150 artifacts, which includes vases, plates with the faces of ancient gods adorned on them, and incense burners, to name a few. Amazingly though, there is believed to be a lot more treasure in this part of the world…
More Where That Came From…
That collection of artifacts is believed to be one of seven sacred chambers that can be found in a collection of tunnels known as the Balamku. Although INAH claims that this treasure hasn’t been touched for 1,000 years, one researcher would beg to differ. Back in 1966, archeologist Victor Segovia Pinto discovered the cave and wrote about it. However, he decided not to excavate it and asked locals to seal the entrance off for good. Five decades later, the treasure was finally found.
It Was Bigger Than England
In order to fully understand how big the Mayan empire was at the height of its powers, it is useful to compare it to a region we are more familiar with. Between the years of 250 and 900 AD, the Mayan people live in an area that was twice the size of medieval England. What makes the comparison even more staggering is the fact that the Mayan population density was much greater than that of England’s at the time.
Naturally, researchers can not determine what they could stumble across next. However, if the recent discoveries are anything to go by, it is clear that they are more confident than ever about finding new things related to the Mayan civilization. PACUNAM aims to carry on the research for the next few years, at least. In tandem with archeologists from around the world, these researchers will not rest until every square inch of the Guatemalan forests is covered. But have they managed to answer the following question?
Where Did They Go?
One question that LiDAR technology hasn’t been able to answer yet about the Mayan people is what could have happened to them. Although the ancient empire’s origins can be traced back to 1,000 B.C. and carrying on all the way up to 900 A.D., their era came to an abrupt end around this time. While people are still theorizing until this very day what exactly happened to them, it is clear that archeologists are closer than ever to unlocking the secrets to this mystery.