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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, W.6-8.2

C3 (D2/6-8): Geo.6, Geo.7, His.2, His.3

NCSS: Science, technology, and society


Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

Jungle of Secrets

Deep inside a remote tropical rainforest are the ruins of the once-great Maya civilization. Technology is helping scientists learn more about those people.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

For centuries, the thick jungles of northern Guatemala have guarded a secret. Experts have long known that the Maya once lived in the rainforests of the Central American country. Over the years, scientists have uncovered ruins there from the ancient civilization. But they were never sure what—if any—additional traces of the Maya had yet to be found. Until now.

Using lasers, archaeologists recently discovered more than 60,000 Maya ruins in a nature reserve. By shooting lasers into the jungle, researchers were able to collect data to create a 3-D map of the forest floor—and all the Maya structures hidden within the shrubs.

The findings include thousands of homes, tombs, and other ruins. They make up a sprawling network of ancient cities and farms linked by roadways. Such a huge discovery indicates that the Maya were more interconnected—and had a larger population—than anyone knew.

For centuries, the thick jungles of northern Guatemala have guarded a secret. Experts have long known that the Maya once lived in the rainforests of that Central American country. Over the years, scientists have uncovered ruins there from the ancient civilization. But they were never sure if more traces of the Maya had yet to be found. Until now.

Using lasers, archaeologists recently discovered more than 60,000 Maya ruins in a nature reserve. Researchers shot lasers into the jungle to collect data. Then they created a 3-D map of the forest floor. The map shows the Maya structures hidden within the shrubs.

The findings include thousands of homes, tombs, and other ruins. Those ruins make up a sprawling network of ancient cities and farms linked by roadways. Such a huge discovery indicates that the Maya were more interconnected than anyone knew. It also reveals they had a larger population than once believed.

An Advanced Society

The Maya were an American Indian people who lived in what is now Mexico and Central America from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. Many Maya resided in villages, in homes with several relatives, including grandparents and cousins. And like many teens today, young Maya had chores, ranging from cooking to hunting.

The Maya were smart and hardworking. Despite living on hilly, swampy land, they were able to grow everything from corn to avocados. Their medicine workers used herbs to treat the sick. The Maya also get credit for some amazing achievements (see sidebar, below). But the civilization began to collapse about 1,100 years ago, and it’s still a mystery why.

The Maya were an American Indian people. They lived in what is now Mexico and Central America. They lived from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. Many Maya lived in villages, and were in homes with several relatives, including grandparents and cousins. And, like many teens today, young Maya had chores. Their chores ranged from cooking to hunting.

The Maya were smart and hardworking. They lived on hilly, swampy land. But they were able to grow everything from corn to avocados. Their medicine workers used herbs to treat the sick. The Maya also get credit for some amazing achievements (see sidebar, below). But the civilization began to collapse about 1,100 years ago. It is still a mystery why.

Learning With Lasers

Archaeologists are determined to uncover more about the Maya. The scientists study the past, often by digging in the ground or diving into oceans to examine sites. They unearth bone, pottery, and other artifacts to learn how people lived.

Sometimes an archaeologist’s job is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But technology is giving them new ways to work. Lasers, for example, help them study large regions, even areas hidden by trees.

That’s how researchers found the Maya ruins. Flying in airplanes, they fired special laser beams into the Guatemalan reserve. The information from the lasers helped scientists build a 3-D map. As the map came together, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

In addition to homes and tombs, the team found walls and fortresses. This suggests that the Maya were concerned about defending themselves against their enemies.

What’s more, the cities were linked by roadways, which researchers believe were used to carry out trade between regions. That was a surprise to experts, who thought that the Maya lived in mostly isolated communities.

Because of what they learned, scientists now think there may have been as many as 15 million Maya. Previous estimates had put the population at about 5 million. 

Archaeologists are determined to uncover more about the Maya. These scientists study the past. They often dig in the ground or dive into oceans to examine sites. They unearth bone, pottery, and other artifacts to learn how people lived.

Sometimes an archaeologist’s job is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But technology is giving them new ways to work. For example, lasers help them study large regions, even areas hidden by trees.

That is how researchers found the Maya ruins. Flying in airplanes, they fired special laser beams into the Guatemalan reserve. The information from the lasers helped scientists build a 3-D map. As the map came together, they could not believe what they were seeing.

The team found homes and tombs. It also found walls and fortresses. This suggests that the Maya were concerned about defending themselves against their enemies.

What is more, the cities were linked by roadways. Researchers think these were used to carry out trade between regions. That was a surprise to experts. Experts had believed that the Maya lived in mostly isolated communities.

Because of what they learned, scientists now think there may have been as many as 15 million Maya. Previous estimates had put the population at about 5 million.

More to Discover?

Researchers are convinced there are other Maya secrets to find. They plan to map more of the reserve soon.

“The impact of this project is just incredible,” says Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a Maya expert at the University of Calgary in Canada. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. . . . It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”

Researchers are convinced there are other Maya secrets to find. They plan to map more of the reserve soon.

“The impact of this project is just incredible,” says Kathryn Reese-Taylor. She is a Maya expert at the University of Calgary in Canada. “After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. . . . It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it.”

Write About it! Summarize the Maya’s contributions to society.

How the Maya Schooled Us

Many of the subjects you study now, the Maya studied first!

Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

Science 
The Maya tracked planets, the moon, and the sun before telescopes were invented. They used this information to create a calendar based on Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Math 
Their system of numbers was one of the first to use symbols to represent zero.

Writing
The Maya invented a form of writing that included about 800 hieroglyphs, or symbols.

Science 
The Maya tracked planets, the moon, and the sun before telescopes were invented. They used this information to create a calendar based on Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Math 
Their system of numbers was one of the first to use symbols to represent zero.

Writing
The Maya invented a form of writing that included about 800 hieroglyphs, or symbols.

Like what you see? Then you'll love Junior Scholastic, our Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

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