New technologies have enabled researchers to uncover previously unknown areas of the ancient city of Caracol in Belize.
Arlen and Diane Chase, a husband-and-wife anthropology team from the University of Central Florida, spent 28 years bushwhacking their way through the jungles of west-central Belize, mapping and excavating Caracol, an ancient Mayan city buried under a thick canopy of rainforest.
They and their students had mapped nine square miles of settlement, 1.5 square miles of agricultural terracing and 25 miles of roadways but believed there was more. They estimated that as many as 100,000 people had lived in the city — a figure that some archeologists questioned without more evidence.
In 2009, the Chases began using a new remote-sensing technology called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that enabled them — from the air — to see beneath the jungle’s canopy and cover more terrain more quickly. Four days of laser-mapping revealed that Caracol had been a huge city encompassing approximately 70 square miles, an area roughly as big as Washington, D.C. The laser images also uncovered tens of thousands of agricultural terraces the Mayans had built to feed the inhabitants of their sprawling city, 11 previously unknown causeways and numerous hidden buildings and structures obscured by dense tropical overgrowth.
The results astonished the Chases. “We didn’t expect it to go this well,” says Diane Chase. The terraced fields they had mapped, for instance, were far more extensive than they’d thought and covered virtually the entire metropolis. “They modified the city landscape on a mind-boggling scale,” she says.
Arlen Chase examines remains from Caracol. Chase and his wife, both UCF professors, use new remote-sensing technology to explore the terrain.
The LiDAR data also verified the couple’s previous population estimates for Caracol. “The data show the full extent of Caracol, how the settlement was structured and how the ancient Maya radically modified their landscape to create a sustainable urban environment, challenging long-held assumptions about the development of civilization in the tropics,” Chase wrote in a 2010 article in Archaelogy magazine.
The Chases hope that the new technique and other emerging technologies will help answer one of the greatest puzzles of modern archaeology — what led to the collapse of Maya civilization around 900 A.D.
While scientists have hypothesized that everything from drought to warfare to the overexploitation of natural resources decimated the Maya, the Chases say they believe that internal social and political stresses likely played a major role in the collapse. One potential clue: The distribution of goods and ritual items over the ages. Archaeological finds from 550 to 790 A.D. showed that the general population and the elite shared many of the same kinds of wares and tombs, for example. In later years, that “symbolic egalitarianism” vanished and may have, the Chases postulate, to Caracol’s eventual collapse.
The Chases are hopeful that they’ll be able to answer more questions as the technology evolves.
“As we have new technological advances — the LiDAR is certainly one (and) our ability to analyze skeletal material for dietary information is another — but I suspect there will be other things we’ll be able to do. When we can get to a place where we can actually look at genetic ties among the population, that will help give us answers,” says Diane Chase. “So we’re going to keep getting closer. Whether we’re going to be absolutely there, I’m not sure.”
Diane Chase is hoping technological advances can help solve the mystery of Caracol’s demise.