Skip to main content

Petén: The Largest Ancient Mayan Discovery Ever

Lew is an American expat living in Honduras. A former gold assayer, he is now a photographer and conservator of Central American culture.

Map of Petén, Northern Guatemala, area of the new discovery

Map of Petén, Northern Guatemala, area of the new discovery

The Reach of the Mayan Empire

Everyone knew the extent of the ancient Mayan empire. Everyone was aware of the names and locations of the most famous sites, from Copán in the southwest to Chichén Itzá in the northeast. But no one was ready for the recent discovery in El Petén.

The territory of the Mayan Empire reaches from western El Salvador and Honduras to Chiapas, including all of Yucatán and Belize. It is a huge land bristling with crumbling ruins, stone monuments, ancient cities and a civilization spanning four thousand years. In the far north, Teotihuacan held great influence over the entire empire, wielding power like the medieval popes of Europe, approving and installing kings and rulers who conformed to the state politics and religious rituals.

Teotihuacan's power and influence declined around the start of the Classic Era, giving rise to Tikal as the imperial overlord.

Guatemala is the nexus of the Mayan culture, containing more ancient cities and ruins than any other area. The most important urban center of the classic era was Tikal after seizing power on the political demise of Teotihuacan, but to keep power Tikal was in constant warfare with her neighbors, Caracol and Calakmul.

For those interested, there are many good books on Ancient Mayan history. I recommend A Forest of Kings by Linda Shele.

A Historic Discovery

Tikal is a huge Mayan site, but no one could guess just how big until an announcement in 2021 by a group of Guatemalan archaeologists, including Marcello Canuto and Francisco Estrada-Belli from Tulane University, working with a crew from National Geographic. Using advanced laser/radar technology which can “see” under the jungle canopies, they were astounded at what they found. Although guessing there were many unexcavated structures in the outlying areas around Tikal, they were assumed to be of no real importance.

The images and readouts from the flyovers show one of the largest sites of ancient civilization in the entire world. Thousands upon thousands of buried structures came to light, at least 60,000 confirmed and many more expected to be found on closer inspection of data. Huge pyramids, ceremonial complexes, urban centers and individual living quarters by the thousand.

An urban area of that size might house and maintain a population of at least 10 million people! That's a population the size of the Chicago metropolitan area.

Scientists are astounded at the extent of this ancient megalopolis. In Estrada-Belli's words: "We will need 100 years to analyze all the data and really understand what we are seeing."

Mayan structure awaiting excavation.

Mayan structure awaiting excavation.

Another site of "no importance"

Another site of "no importance"

The Sweat of Human Effort

The most remarkable aspect of this discovery is the human effort involved to create such a feat. The ancient Maya did not have the advantages of their European and Asian counterparts as they were a Neolithic culture. They had no beasts of burden, no horses, oxen, mules, donkeys, or any other animal domesticated to pull heavy loads. And even if the animals existed, they had never discovered the concept of wheels or hauling loads by cart.

Because Mayan metalworking was practically nonexistent they had no metal tools, no stone-working chisels, metal hammers, shovels or any metal machinery or earthmoving equipment. It was all by the sweat of human labor. Although constructed over a long time period, how much effort would it take to build a city the size of Chicago from hand-worked stone?

Besides the stone-working and moving difficulties, the Maya were building much of the complex on swampland. They discovered how to drain much of the swamp so they were able to construct some of their stone buildings on the newly dried land. In areas they couldn't drain, they built stone bridges and elevated roadways to travel across the morass.

At present no one knows how they drained the swamps, but since that time much of the water has returned, inundating a number of their stone structures.

Mayan hand-worked stones lying in the forest.

Mayan hand-worked stones lying in the forest.

The Invaluable Work of Archaeologists

The Petén Megalopolis discovery is in its infancy, and estimates of true size and demographics can and will change. Only time will tell. On thing is certain, however. There is a crying need for trained archaeologists and volunteers to bring these discoveries to light. Even in a “small” site like Copán there is a serious shortage of help to excavate, catalog and reconstruct new and previously discovered sites.

The work of a volunteer is hard and dirty, but it can be the most interesting and rewarding work of a lifetime. Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala are hampered by lack of funds, but also by lack of labor and security to prevent theft and looting of artifacts. Central America may be as important as Egypt or Greece, but only if the world takes notice. Hopefully, this will be soon.

Stones identified and tagged for reconstruction by archaeologists and volunteers

Stones identified and tagged for reconstruction by archaeologists and volunteers

Additional Sources

"El imperio perdido de los mayas en Guatemala", La Prensa, El Diario de Honduras, 10 Feb 2018 / 11:21 PM / Redacción (Editorial Staff), San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Photos: Author's file

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 01, 2018:

I wonder how many other discoveries will be made with the use of laser and radar technology? Thick jungle canopies can hide so much! It is amazing to think that some 10 million people would have lived there! Thanks for writing this interesting article.

Lew Marcrum (author) from Ojojona, Francisco Morazán, Honduras on February 12, 2018:

Thank you very much! Living here locally, I'll try to keep the news updated.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 11, 2018:

Fascinating discoveries. I know this will take time, but the new information will be amazing.

Mek Hepela Kamongmenan from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on February 11, 2018:

Great Hub.