I just read something very exciting on the National Geographic website. It seems that the Mayan city of Tikal and its environs in Guatemala were much, much, MUCH larger than we previously thought. All this time, we were thinking the area was home to about 5 million people during the Maya classic period between 250 and 900 AD, when in fact it was more likely that this civilization’s population was about 10-15 million. That’s much more densely populated than medieval England was.
How did we reach this conclusion? Scholars used LiDAR, which is a sort of penetrating radar that can look through the vegetation to see previously undiscovered structures. (Check out the photos in that NatGeo article. They’re really quite fascinating.) They were able to find the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, and elevated highways.
Holy cow, talk about a booming metropolis. To put that in context, cities about that size today include Bangkok, Thailand; Los Angeles, USA; Cairo, Egypt; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Clearly there was a lot more going on in the Tikal area than we previously imagined.
And how exciting for archeologists! It will take decades to sort through all this LiDAR data, and even longer to clear the growth off the buildings of interest. This is quite a breakthrough. We have so much more to learn about this ancient culture! There are some pyramids in there that are 7 stories high that you can’t see even when you are standing right in front of them. Now, they just look like jungle-y hills, lost in the underbrush.
That, to me, is mind-blowing. Imagine. If we abandoned Los Angeles for a thousand years, it would be so overgrown that no one would even know it was there!
That’s sobering. I mean, we walk around thinking that we are living in the realm of permanence, that we’ve made our mark and staked our claim on the earth, that our skyscrapers will last forever. In fact, from a cosmic perspective, all this stuff is fleeting. It’s here, but not for long. Not really. Someday it will be unrecognizable. The dry cleaner’s across the street will not even be there in 50 years, let alone 500 years. This moment in time won’t be remembered, eventually.
It’s all so fragile. That makes the now seem all the more precious. I don’t know about you, but it has me looking at things with fresh eyes. Who wants to go to Tikal with me?