Even after thousands of years exploring Earth, we’re still uncovering new things like an ancient “superhighway” in the Guatemalan rain forest. Hidden beneath a thick layer of vegetation, the network of roads stretches over 150 miles and was most likely built by the Mayan empire some 2,000 years ago.
The newly mapped roads are connected to the ruins of El Mirador (sometimes called the Kan Kingdom) in northern Guatemala. Archaeologists believe El Mirador was founded around the 6th century BCE, and was at its most powerful around the early first century CE. At that time, it had a population of as many as a quarter of a million, a quarter the size of Rome itself at the time. It also has some of the largest pyramids in the world. It was the heart of the Mayan civilization, and naturally needed some major roadways.
The roads of El Mirador have been known about since 1967, but scientists had no idea how extensive they were until now. The thick jungle obscured the remnants of the road, making it difficult to see from the air. Researchers got around that using plane-mounted lidar, which can penetrate the forest canopy. It bounces laser pulses off the Earth, then the reflections are received by the plane and the distance readings are interpreted as a topographical map. The system is capable of mapping 560,000 dots per second, providing an accurate topographical map of the land surrounding El Mirador.
An elevated section of causeway.
So far, more than 430 square miles of jungle have been scanned, and 17 distinct roads have been identified. It has also generated higher detail maps of El Mirador’s agricultural terraces, pyramids, canals, and other structures. The roads and causeways are 130 feet wide, which would be wider than a 10-lane modern highway. They are elevated more than 20 feet in places, and individual sections extend as far as 25 miles.
The team from the Mirador Basin Project compares the road system around El Mirador with early Rome, saying it indicates food production in El Mirador existed on an industrial scale. By following the roads, archaeologists hope to uncover more Mayan ruins and sites that could offer more insight into the culture of El Mirador. Still unknown is why the cultural significance of the Mirador Basin began declining around 150 CE. Having a system of roads should have unified the local population and encouraged cultural exchange, but maybe it also allowed for the exchange of disease or hostilities.