The LiDAr laser technology penetrates the forest floor to allow an optical vision of what lies beneath.
The implications for this find are stunning, as it suggests that the ancient Mayan civilization that encompassed the city was even more densely populated than anyone previously believed. Another discovery was a complex network of raised highways linking all the Maya cities in the area.
As a result of researches scientists have found the remaining ruins of buildings, including houses, palaces, roads, terraces and complex irrigation systems.
"There's state involvement here, because we see large canals being dug that are re-directing natural water flows", said Thomas Garrison, assistant professor of Anthropology at Ithaca College in NY. The findings and the technology behind them - LiDAR (light detection and ranging) - will be the focus of a new National Geographic documentary to premiere on February 6 at 9 p.m. EST titled "Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake King". The highly accurate measurements are then used to produce a detailed three-dimensional image of the ground surface topography.
Researchers found more than 60,000 previously unknown structures including pyramids, royal tombs, palaces, roadways and defensive fortifications hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest canopy. LiDAR technology has also been used in recent years to reveal hidden cities in Cambodia near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat.
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Garrison serves as one of the archaeology advisors to the project, and was fundamental in lobbying for the survey, which is now the single largest ever conducted in the field of Mesoamerican archaeology.
Professor Houston said that the discoveries were "breathtaking" and that the imagery brought him to tears.
The study estimates that about 10 million people lived in this area, which means they needed a massive food production. The researchers mapped over 810 square miles in the Petén region of Guatemala using the technology. He believes the scale and population density has been "grossly underestimated and could in fact be three or four times greater than previously thought".
"The application of the most advanced technologies has allowed us to discover an infinity of structures", Guatemala's Minister of Culture and Sports José Luis Chea Urruela at a presentation in Guatemala City on Thursday.