They've revealed an incredibly extensive network of "superhighways."
The Mayans were incredibly advanced — that's nothing new. But gauging the extent of their civilization has always proved tricky, since so much of it lies hidden by the impenetrably dense rainforests of Guatemala. But now, using light detection and ranging (LiDAR), scientists have revealed a network of nearly 800 Maya settlements and a sprawling web of interconnected "superhighways."
These ancient thoroughfares comprise causeways of raised stone, and according to a new study published on the discovery in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica, they — along with the over 400 cities, towns, and villages they link — imply a level of advanced organization for Preclassic Mayan civilization.
"They're the world's first superhighway system that we have," study lead author Richard Hansen, a professor of anthropology at Idaho State University, told CNN.
Walking on Clouds
Known as sacbes, meaning "white roads," these causeways rose above the tangled and sometimes swampy grounds of the forests. In their prime, sacbes were enameled in a layer of white plaster that helped the underlying mix of mud mortar and carefully quarried stone appear more visible in moonlight.
The researchers have identified some 110 miles of these sacbes in their study so far, with some of them as wide as 110 feet. Their elevation was no joke either, ranging between 1.5 feet to over 16 feet above ground. A pristine, shiny white stone road so loftily elevated above the ground must have made for a glorious commute back in the day.
Marcello Canuto, an anthropology professor at Tulane University whose work was cited in the study, told CNN that constructing the sacbes "were efforts that involve a lot of people, a lot of labor and coordination."
"They are complex work projects that would have required coordination and some form of hierarchy," he added.
According to the study, such advanced infrastructure entails a homogenous "power to organize thousands of workers," ranging from "lime producers, mortar and quarry specialists, lithic technicians, architects, logistics and agricultural procurement specialists, and legal enforcement and religious officials."
Yet even as one of the largest studies on the Mayan Lowlands to date, the discovery illustrates just how vast a network of this extinct civilization could still be out of view.
"Imagine you're in Poughkeepsie [New York], and that's all you can see, but you might catch this thing that we call the turnpike, right, but everything else is covered in jungle," Canuto explained. "You'll have no idea that this turnpike might connect New York with Philadelphia."
Updated to clarify the location of Poughkeepsie.
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