Slide background

Mapping Maya: LiDAR Creates Impact

by Web on June 11, 2018

Using the latest technology, Millsaps College students are learning more about the terrain of Kaxil Kiuic, the 4,500-acre biocultural reserve in Yucatan owned by the College, and the surrounding region as well as studying artifacts they unearth.

“Millsaps College has a long history of significant and important archaeological work in this area, and the introduction of LiDAR technology has an immediate and important impact on our work,” said Dr. George Bey, professor of sociology and anthropology and Chisholm Foundation chair of Arts and Sciences at Millsaps.

The aerial survey method of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has made the news recently because it has produced maps of more than 800 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén region of Guatemala, creating the largest LiDAR data set ever obtained for archaeological research.

The results suggest that Central America sustained an advanced civilization that was, at its peak some 1,200 years ago, more comparable to sophisticated cultures such as ancient Greece or China than to the scattered and sparsely populated city-states that ground-based research had long suggested.

The LiDAR map produced by the project (which includes Davidson, INAH and Millsaps) covers 250 sq. km and has revealed not only many more sites and building in the biocultural reserve, but literally hundreds of new sites in the larger region (known as the Puuc region). All of these can be clearly seen in the LiDAR without labor intensive groundwork on the front end, Bey said.

“Imagine that you have an idea of the archaeological culture underneath the forest, but you can actually see it by using LiDAR,” he said.

Nathan Brownstein, a junior from Columbus who is majoring geology with a minor in archaeology, explained how the technology works.

“First, a specially equipped aircraft flies over the region,” he said. “A laser is then beamed to the ground from the aircraft, and data is recorded. The information we get through LiDAR helps us understand what the ground’s surface looks like, even though it is normally obscured by trees. The images we receive through LiDAR are processed by a computer, and provide black and white pictures showing us the terrain we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise.”

Mason Shrader, a junior at Millsaps who is majoring in anthropology and classical studies with a minor in archaeology, said he was in awe the first time he walked into the lab and saw the map of LiDAR for the first time.

“It blew me away as Dr. Bey and Dr. (William) Ringle identified what seemed like dozens of potential new sites all across the Puuc region,” he said. “As I sat there looking at all those previously undiscovered sites, I felt like I was taking part in the exploration of a new archaeological frontier.”

Shrader said he has developed an interest in Mesoamerican archaeology after taking Bey’s class “Aztec and Maya: Kings, Gods and Blood” and that led him to gain field experience in Yucatan. He plans to attend graduate school and study archaeology.

Evan Parker, who graduated from Millsaps in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology/anthropology and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane University, also marvels at LiDAR maps.

“There are so many features across the ancient Maya landscape that we walked over and didn’t recognize them as earthen embankments, irrigation works, or even humble house mounds,” he said. “Being able to look at a LiDAR map and see the full range of settlement types for the ancient Maya not only provides us with amazing new answers about the prehistoric record, but it enables us to ask new questions as well. Of course, LiDAR is not a cure-all for the archaeologist. There are still ancient platforms and buildings that may be detectable by the human eye but aren’t picked up in LiDAR. Ultimately, we still have to go into the jungle and see these things for ourselves.”

Parker, who has been digging in Yucatan since 2009, is completing the last field season for his dissertation, which is focused on a small Middle Preclassic (900 BC–350 BC) village called Paso del Macho. “I’m studying how the first sedentary occupants of the Yucatan dealt with population pressure, a shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, and the rise of inequality,” he said.

The use of LiDAR builds on the research through the years and lays the foundation for future Millsaps students to explore, excavate, and interpret Maya history, Bey said.

The technology is possible thanks to a $286,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that Bey received along with Dr. Tomas Gallareta Negron of Centro Yucatan-INAH in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, and Millsaps scholar of Maya Studies, and Dr. William Ringle, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. Ringle serves as senior investigator for the project.

Funding will be used for a three-year project to carry out research focused on how understanding patterns of cultivation and architectural construction by the ancient Maya in the eastern Puuc Hills of Yucatán, shaped the regionalism of the area during that time.

“Our goal is to comprehensively study the ancient Maya from both a macro and micro scale,” Bey said. “We want to define the growth of this region, its socio-political organization and economy, in order to better understand why the Maya were so successful in the Puuc and what led to the almost total abandonment of this region after two millennium of occupation."

Although the population of the Puuc was densely settled between A.D. 650 and 1000, “our project has shown that there is a very significant population in the region with massive platforms and pyramidal structures as far back as 900 B.C.,” Bey said. The area was later largely abandoned, and the region remains largely uninhabited to this day.

Bey said he expects the project will help strengthen longtime collaboration with the College’s partners in Mexico as well as provide new opportunities for Mexican and American students to work together.

Millsaps has been involved with the Kiuic project since 1999. The project has been recognized by the National Geographic Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the World Heritage Foundation for its efforts as well as highlighted in the 2012 National Geographic Documentary "Quest for the Lost Maya."