Scientists from UNAM's Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) helped process laser-light remote sensing (LIDAR) images of the forest canopy in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. These images showed one of the largest and most important Maya population centers.
Felix Alexander Kupprat, an IIA expert, is a member of the Bajo Laberinto Archaeological Project, which involves UNAM, the University of Calgary, and the Autonomous University of Campeche, and collaborates with the University of Cincinnati. With money from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the scanning was done in close cooperation with the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston.
"We had the idea that it was a dense site because some time ago the Autonomous University of Campeche mapped 30 square kilometers (km2) in the area, an area they defined as an urban core, but they estimated that the inhabited area could measure more than 100 km2. Now, it was impressive. We mapped 100 km2 in Calakmul and 100 in Yaxnohcah, and everything is full. "We have a theory that the entire shore of the Lower Labyrinth was part of this urban stain," explained the archaeology specialist.
Researchers from the university helped process the images, which made it possible to see substantial apartment complexes, some of which were made up of more than 60 separate buildings, and apartment complexes that were built around temples, sanctuaries, and potential markets in what was one of the largest cities in the Americas in 700 AD.
For the find, the experts teamed up to acquire remote sensing imagery with LIDAR in one area of the Calakmul Biosphere and are looking to map an even wider area encompassing the massive Maya city of Calakmul. The areas scanned to date reveal a large, dense area that likely took its final form during the rule of the Kanu'l dynasty, between AD 635 and 850.
"Unlike the traditional idea we have of cities, with a center and forest-free areas, there were areas of cultivation in several parts." At the same time, we see that the settlement is continuous; we don't see a defined boundary with walls or other markings. We believe that something like Mexico City happened today, where the urban sprawl integrated communities that were far away. The difference is that there was a lot of production in the city in cultivation areas. "We're talking about a huge urban area with a wide range of population densities," Kupprat said.
The archaeologist stated that the Bajo Laberinto, a swampy depression, is the area's dominant geological feature. It is distinctive due to its vegetation, and we are aware that the Mayas preferred to live on the shores, where they made extensive use of it.
The goal is to look below the surface of the reserve, which was the capital of the powerful Kanu'l between about 635 and 850 A.D., when they ruled the Maya lowlands and ran a huge network of vassal and allied kingdoms.
Kupprat explained: it was known to be related to other dynasties in the Maya region, and although it was originally based in Dzibanché in the 5th or 6th centuries AD, from the 7th to the 8th century, a faction was in Calakmul, where it expanded through alliances and wars. And this is known from the hieroglyphs on stone and ceramics.
"Because we haven't determined the extent of the urban system, we can't say how many people lived there." According to estimates, each structure houses between four and six people at the same time because most are elongated with multiple rooms. In addition, there are sets of many patios that are social units that exceed the family and would be complex domestic units. "Based on the map of the 1980s, it had been calculated that the city could have had up to 50,000 inhabitants," he added.
The first images that have been analyzed show that Calakmul may have grown very quickly after the Kanu'l rulers moved in. For the UNAM researcher and his study team, one of the main findings is that it is important to know what is in the area, such as bodies of water so that they can figure out where the current wildlife lives during the dry season. This is important in light of climate change.
"Thinking that even biologists perceive that jungle as pristine since it is a natural reserve, we realize that everything is in a landscape that was modified by man." As a result, it is not as natural as we might think. "It is quite impressive," said the anthropologist.