Anthropology instructor publishes in Science Magazine

BLOOMSBURG— Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania instructor of anthropology Damien Marken, Ph.D. and several professional colleagues have an article published in the Sept. 28 issue of Science Magazine.

The article, “Ancient lowland Maya complexity as revealed by airborne laser scanning of northern Guatemala,” shows that Mayan cities were far more complex than they were previously believed to have been. The article is based on the results of a 2,100 km2 LiDAR survey of the Guatemala lowlands conducted by the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative (PLI), an international coalition of archaeological projects.

First used in the Maya lowlands in 2009, LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology allows scholars to digitally remove the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed. The most extensive LiDAR survey of the Maya area to-date, the results of the PLI survey alter our understanding of the ancient Maya on a regional scale.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said;Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research.

Marken, also a National Geographic Explorer as well as an Explorers Club fellow, is a director of the Waka’ Archaeological Project (PAW), one of the projects participating in the PLI. PAW archaeologists and scientists have been investigating the Classic Maya (AD 250-900) city of El Perú-Waka’ since 2003. Prior to the LiDAR survey, Marken spent over a decade mapping approximately 13 km2 of the city and its hinterlands in the dense jungle, “and in basically a day the LiDAR survey increased the area he mapped by about seven times.”

Over Marken’s five years at Bloomsburg University, numerous students have participated in PAW’s field and lab investigations at El Perú-Waka’ in Guatemala. Last summer, one student, Zachary Cooper ’16, aided in ground-truthing the LiDAR data, verifying the archaeological features in one-third of the PAW LiDAR survey area. Cooper will return to Guatemala to continue the LiDAR ground verification.

Marken says that the broader impacts of the PLI results on the future of Maya archaeology are staggering. “As a kid I marveled at the size of the ancient Maya temples and palaces, and wondered how these 1300-year old buildings were still standing. As I got older, I became more interested in the populations living within and around these royal ceremonial centers,” he says. “And now we can really begin to figure out the full complexity of ancient Maya civilization and how they adapted to and modified their landscape on a truly massive scale.”

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