Mayan discovery reaffirms professor's life work

The recent discovery of Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan jungle is changing the way people think of that ancient civilization.

As a result, professor Ruben Mendoza, chair of the School of Social, Behavioral & Global Studies, finds himself vindicated for challenging preconceived notions about the Maya when he was in graduate school in the late 1970's.

Most researchers at the time, including his advisor, were convinced "the Maya were essentially not warlike, they did not have a written historical tradition, and the failure of their society was predicated on managerial mismanagement of the ecology and resources," recalls Mendoza.

His dissertation challenged that view and upset his advisor.

The findings that made headlines, however, are reaffirming Mendoza's thinking that Maya cities were much larger and more interconnected than once conceived.

Video by Joey Perotti

Clearing the jungle

In Mendoza's formative years as an archeologist, you would arrive at your site by pack mule train after a 3-6 day hike. Then you would clear the jungle by hand as best you could to reveal a single site. The rest of the area would remain hidden and unexplored.

"That area has been virtually impenetrable to survey work," reminds Mendoza.

Technology has changed all of that. LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is allowing archeologists to digitally deforest a huge area of the jungle and reveal hidden structures perhaps only seen by the Maya themselves.

In some areas like Tikal in Guatemala, Mendoza says "they now have evidence of up to 60,000 sites and features that were largely unknown."

The Maya living in that area would have been part of a huge society, Mendoza suggests, ranging from "hundreds of thousands if not millions of people inhabiting what today is the most dense forest canopies in the Americas."