Research highlight

Archaeology: Layout of ancient Mesoamerica sites revealed by remote sensing

Nature Human Behaviour

October 26, 2021

The formal architecture of nearly 500 ancient Mesoamerican sites, built over a period of two thousand years, has been revealed by remote sensing. The findings are presented in a paper published this week in Nature Human Behaviour.

Previous research has shown that the Mesoamerican civilizations known as the Olmec and Maya covered a wide area across Mexico and Guatemala between 1400 bc and ad 1000. Their cities are known to have been designed in relation to cosmological patterns. However, assessment of the spatial configurations of these cities — and subsequently an enhanced understanding of these early civilizations in this region — has so far been limited by a lack of systematic studies of sites over broad areas.

Takeshi Inomata and colleagues use a form of remote sensing known as airborne laser mapping (lidar) to visualize Mesoamerican architecture and site layout across 463 sites, covering 84,516 square kilometers of southern Mexico. Lidar analysis revealed the structure of ancient architecture even in areas of dense jungle. The authors’ findings suggest that the major Olmec centre of San Lorenzo — which was built in the second millennium bc — had design features based on the ancient Mesoamerican calendar. These are also found in the layout of other, later sites, implying that San Lorenzo had a lasting influence throughout this region.

Based on their results, the authors suggest that there were five distinct types of architecture and site layout, which may correspond to different time periods. Future research is needed to confirm this, and to examine how these architectural features corresponded to cultural beliefs and practices.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01218-1

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