Friday, February 2, 2018


Early Thursday morning, February 1, 2018, National Geographic broke a story intended to drive viewership to a one-hour special entitled "Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings" that aired on Tuesday, February 6, 2018 on the National Geographic Channel. The teaser was "See how LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology and rewriting history." The National Geographic story that quickly went viral was entitled "Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle." In subsequent days, the story was picked up by other major media:
The details in this story, including those shared in the television special, explicitly corroborate dozens of verses in the Book of Mormon that describe dense populations, sophisticated economies, road networks, large-scale agriculture, intensive land use, disaster-prone landscapes, and prevalent warfare. This is paradigm-shifting even for Latter-day Saint scholars who have tended to dismiss Book of Mormon phrases such as "the whole face of the land" as hyperbole. If the Maya lowlands were part of the Book of Mormon world as we believe they were (See the Book of Mormon Central archive article "Book of Mormon Lands Map, January 2016") these grandiose descriptions are not far-fetched after all. Respected archaeologists are now comparing the Maya with the ancient Egyptians and Chinese.
LiDAR is a technology where expensive equipment is flown in a slow grid pattern over a target area. Billions of pulsed laser beams penetrate the forest canopy and bounce off structures below to create a massive data cloud. Graphics processing with supercomputers then yields highly accurate 3-D maps of the scanned surface. This digital imaging technique is revolutionizing Mesoamerican archaeology where important ruins lie concealed beneath jungle or dense forest.
Guatemalan LiDAR Data after Rendering and Graphical Processing
Richard Hansen's and Fernando Paiz' FundaciĆ³n Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (PACUNAM) just went public with the results of the largest LiDAR survey ever attempted for archaeological research. Called the Pacunam LiDAR Initiative, it mapped 10 tracts totaling 2,100 square kilometers near the Mirador Basin and other areas of northern Guatemala. The surveyed area is less than half the size of Utah County. And what did archaeologists find buried in the Peten?
  • 65,000 previously unknown structures. Mosiah 27:6 speaks of large cities and villages in all quarters of the land.
  • Vast networks of highways elevated so they functioned even in the rainy season. 3 Nephi 6:8 terminology is many highways cast up, and many roads made.
  • Ubiquitous fortresses, ramparts, and defensive walls. Alma 49:13 mentions forts of security, for every city in all the land round about. Alma 49:18 emphasizes the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about. Mormon in Alma 50:4,6 calls Captain Moroni's fortifications towers and strongholdsAlma 52:6 describes Teancum preparing defenses by casting up walls round about and preparing places of resort. The article "75 BC" documents the impressive chronological correlation between widespread fortifications in the Maya lowlands and the Book of Mormon text.
  • Public works including dikes, dams, canals, ditches, and reservoirs. In some cases Maya engineers re-routed natural stream flows. Mormon, in describing the Nephite golden age in the land southward, mentions widespread engineering and construction works Alma 50:12 which included ditches Alma 49:22.
  • Agricultural terraces with irrigation systems. Alma 17:26-27 describes a designated Lamanite place of water.
  • Animal pens. Alma 1:29 says the Nephites had an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind.
  • Stone quarries. Alma 48:8 lists banks of earth and walls of stone as structural components.
It will take decades to study so many new structures, but settlement patterns and big picture insights are already apparent. The concordance between this new scientific data and the scriptural record is simply remarkable. It is almost like the archaeologists are paraphrasing the Book of Mormon.
  • Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15-20 million. Mormon 1:7 says the people in the land southward were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.
  • Maya civilization was much more dense, complex and advanced than previously thought. Jarom 1:8 says the people multiplied exceedingly, spread upon the face of the land, became exceedingly rich, employed fine workmanship, built buildings and machinery, worked metals, made tools of every kind, and crafted weapons of war. Helaman 3:14-15 adds that they built ships, temples, synagogues, and sanctuaries and authored many books and many records of every kind.
  • Maya cities were more interconnected with transportation infrastructure than anyone realized. 3 Nephi 6:8 describes many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place.
  • Food production was at an industrial scale. Helaman 6:12 mentions raising grain in abundance, many flocks and herds, and many fatlings.
  • Land use was intensive - nearing 100% in many areas. Mormon 1:7 says the whole face of the land had become covered with buildings. Note to would-be Book of Mormon geographers from John W. (Jack) Welch: the text does NOT say huts, tents, dugouts or mounds.
  • Many people lived on marginal, swampy lands. Helaman 11:20 uses the terminology waste places4 Nephi 1:9 speaks of cities sunk in water.
  • Endemic warfare over centuries was the norm. Mormon 8:8 Moroni ca. AD 400 said the Lamanites are at war one with another, and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.
  • Warfare was particularly prevalent in the early classic AD 250-500. Moroni 1:2 Moroni ca. AD 400 - 421 wrote that their wars are exceedingly fierce among themselves.
Notes from the television special that aired on Feb. 6:
  • We have always known the Maya were the most advanced civilization in the ancient Americas. Now we know they were one of the most advanced in all the ancient world. The Lord promised Jared and his brother that their seed in the New World would become "a great nation" and that there would be "none greater ... upon all the face of the earth" Ether 1:43.
  • The Maya developed perhaps the most sophisticated writing system in the entire ancient world with over 800 different glyphic characters. Book of Mormon authors mentioned writing challenges: "difficulty of engraving our words upon plates" Jacob 4:1, "awkwardness of our hands" Ether 12:23-24, "stumble because of the placing of our words" Ether 12:24.
  • Tikal was 3 or 4 times larger than we thought. Previous population estimates were 60,000 at apogee. That number should now be 250,000 or more. El Palmar (15 kilometers west of Tikal) was 40 times larger than we realized. The Maya created vast urban sprawl. In many places the Book of Mormon text mentions large populations: "numerous people" Mosiah 24:3, "so many people" 3 Nephi 5:8.
  • Estimates of population in the Maya area at apogee have been revised upward to about 20 million. This was 1/2 the population of Europe at the time, even though the Maya occupied only 1/30 as much land area. Mormon described the Lamanites as "numberless hosts" Alma 51:27.
  • We used to think of Maya cities as isolated. They were not. Networks of roads and highways connected them over vast distances. One is reminded of the roads and highways mentioned in 3 Nephi 8:13.
  • Agricultural production was on an astonishing scale with many wetlands drained and turned into irrigated fields. Helaman 12:2 explicitly mentions agriculturalists prospering "in the increase of their fields."
  • There was much more war among the Maya than we had ever supposed. Defensive structures and fortifications were everywhere. Tikal had a large fortress protecting it. The Nephites strengthened "so many cities ... all of which were strongly fortified, after the manner of the fortifications of Moroni" Alma 51:27.
  • There was an earthwork wall surrounding Tikal 5 meters high and 16 kilometers long. Archaeologists have begun calling it "the great wall of Tikal." The Book of Mormon describes "a strong wall of timbers and earth to an exceeding height" Alma 53:4 encircling Bountiful with similar earthworks surrounding Gid Alma 55:25-26.
The Maya flourished in their tropical home from ca. 1,000 BC to AD 900. In most parts of the world, archaeological remains of the magnitude revealed in the Pacunam LiDAR initiative would have been obscured long ago by modern farming, ranching, and urbanization. In the case of the northern Peten, dense jungle quickly reclaimed the sites abandoned in the classic Maya collapse and this overgrowth both hid and protected them. As a result of the recent laser survey, four entirely new sites with pyramids and plazas are now known to science. The most important findings of the research, though, are the unexpected length, breadth, and depth of human activity and architectural development around sites previously known.

Thomas Garrison is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at New York's Ithaca College. He has worked extensively at the site of El Zotz ("the bat," classic Mayan "Pa' Chan"). He went into the area recently looking for one of he roads shown in the LiDAR data. "I found it," he said, "but if I had not had the LiDAR and known ... that's what it was, I would have walked right over it, because of how dense the jungle is."
Some of the Archaeological Sites Near Areas Mapped
in Phase I of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative
This northern Guatemalan LiDAR project will continue in phases, eventually mapping more than 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Utah County). At that point it will have mapped approximately 1.4% of the ancient Maya world which covers 350,000 square kilometers (about the size of Montana).

This note was shared by Larry Stay, former Guatemala City South Mission President and personal friend of Richard Hansen: “We have a big article coming out in Nat Geo magazine later this year. This material is not the Mirador Basin, but the area to the east of the Basin, towards Belize.  We start flying again at the end of this month to finish the rest of the Basin. Best to you always, Richard”

LiDAR in archaeology is like the Hubble Telescope in astronomy.
Guatemalan LiDAR Data after Additional Graphical Processing
For notes of a 2015 talk given by Richard Hansen that discussed part of this LiDAR project, see the article "Hansen and Coe." For additional LiDAR images from the vicinity of the Mirador Basin, see the articles "Roads and Highways" and "Flocks and Herds."

Hansen, almost certainly the leading field archaeologist in Mesoamerica today (he's nicknamed "King of the Jungle"), served his mission in Bolivia, graduated from BYU, and is a practicing Latter-day Saint living in Rupert, Idaho.

If you enjoyed this article, you will likely appreciate "Top 10 Archaeological Evidences for the Book of Mormon."

The September 28, 2018 issue of Science (vol. 361, issue 6409, pp. 1313 - 1314) has an article by Anabel Ford and Sherman Horn entitled "Above and below the Maya forest." In it they cite estimated population densities in the central Maya lowlands (surrounding the areas surveyed by the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative) of 80 to 120 persons per square kilometer. This works out to a total population of 7 to 11 million in the 95,000 square kilometers of the central Maya lowlands ca AD 650 - 800. These estimates are based on LiDAR visualizations corroborated by traditional boots on the ground archaeological reconnaissance (ground truthing). See the article "Ground-Truthed LiDAR."

Article by Kirk Magleby who volunteers as Executive Director of Book of Mormon Central, world's premiere source of reliable Book of Mormon contextual material in English and Spanish. Article last updated on September 30, 2018.