Hidden beneath the vast canopy is a lost world of the ancient maya nearly two million square miles of lush green hide centuries-old cities riddled with mysteries but today lasers in the sky are helping to expose these secrets it’s kind of like having x-ray vision and seeing beneath the canopy without having to touch a single leaf archaeologists are using this new superpower to unearth treasures on the ground we are starting to get information from all kinds of places where we knew absolutely nothing it’s changing our understanding of the maya and helping to create a treasure map of maya’s lost world today what
escapes eyes on the ground is often clear to hundreds of more powerful eyes in the sky [Music] new technologies are being applied to archaeology and it’s gathering more information than ever thought possible 2018 National Geographic was an exciting year for the maya across the guatemala landscape thousands of new ruins were popping up once hidden structures are being revealed through satellites and a laser scanning technology called lidar one of the most exciting tools that we have in our hands that we’re just beginning to use in the amazon is lidar lidar scanning lets us see through the forest canopy to what lies below lidar means light
detection and ranging it works by firing streams of light pulses from an aircraft to the ground and timing the return of the pulse when it bounces back to the sensor this reconstructs shapes under the canopy almost like seeing the x-ray vision every time that we have found a new set of tools we get an insight into something that we’ve never imagined possible in the amazon and i think lidar is one of these things that’s going to completely change how we understand the landscape the trees have always been what’s kept us from understanding what’s happening in the amazon and now we can see through them more than 800 square miles of the maya biosphere reserve have been mapped to reveal massive feats of engineering for the very first time taken together the images point to a far more sprawling and sophisticated society man-made structures appear complex roads temples and palaces engineering like this would make today’s city planners proud so what happened how could such a great Lost World of the Maya!
society fail could it have been war religious cults and mass sacrifice drought laser mapping is the latest tool used to help unlock mysteries of the ancient maya world for decades archaeologists have pieced together clues from ruins discovered the old-fashioned way on foot ten years ago in the heart of mexico’s yucatan region the ruins of a forgotten maya town called kiwi emerged from the jungle without the help of ariel lidar in 800 a.d a local king ruled here and built an impressive pyramid shrine [Music] 20 000 rocks cut and stacked 30 feet high the ancient maya often placed royal tombs under pyramids so on a
Lost World of the Maya!
hunch archaeologist george bay decides to sink a shaft straight through [Music] this building represents a artifact that provides us with information about the evolution of maya society by examining it we hope to understand how kiwi evolved in the yucatan for three decades coaxing from the earth a snapshot of what life must have been like for the little-known maya who lived here called the northern or poop maya [Music] surprises we have surprises 21 feet into the hole bay and his team make an important find though to the untrained eye it just looks like another piece of rubble oh yeah look at that this is fantastic this is a vault stone and so for us this is a very distinctive type of stone here’s the face of it this is the flat face and this back part of it is cut like this angled and that would have stuck into the wall these special vault stones were not used to build pyramids but to
hold up the ceilings of buildings yet inexplicably here is one deep in the pyramid and when they dig under the base of the pyramid they find something even more out of place the foundation of an ancient this building is completely new it consists of several steps in a tallow shape you have an idea of when this might date to 400 500 wow the pyramid dates to 800 a.d but analysis of pottery fragments confirms the foundation under the pyramid is 300 years older dating to 500 a.d but that is an impossible date to understand why requires a trip south back to guatemala 600 bc the earliest days of maya civilization scholars always believed it was here in a region called the mirador basin that maya civilization was born early kings raised the jungles and built monumental cities [Music] over the next thousand years the maya civilization became the most advanced in Lost World of the Maya!
the americas [Music] they mastered mathematics and astronomy perfected the first written language of the western hemisphere and produced stunning works of art but in 700 a.d there was a massive breakdown war political strife and famine rocked the maya world cities abandoned hordes of refugees escape fleeing north [Music] as part of this wave one refugee king sets down roots in kiwi founds the town and soon after builds a pyramid at least that’s what scientists had always thought until now with the discovery of the ancient building foundation the dates don’t add up the foundation dates from 500 a.d but maya refugees don’t arrive here until at least two centuries later was someone already occupying kiwi when the refugees arrived 17 miles
away another discovery raises more questions [Music] its location is being kept a closely guarded secret for fear of looters few archaeologists have seen the discovery in person including fatima techpool getting to this discovery is no easy task it’s 230 feet underground in the bottom of a cave the tunnel is narrow and only one person can fit through at a time [Music] roberto local residents knew about this cave for years but had no inkling of the treasure hidden inside through a pitch-black maze of tunnels they come to the remnants of a wall here we have a restricted passageway there was a wall here marking an entrance that
Lost World of the Maya!
separated two areas a public space and a sacred space as fatima enters the sacred chamber she notices something curious it appears that countless torches and ritual fires once burned here the maya believed that caves were the dwelling place of gods maya priests made pilgrimage here on special religious holidays consuming hallucinogenic plants to commune with the deities the chamber is cluttered with broken pottery here’s an intentional deposit of ceramics where the maya broke vessels as part of an offering scholars suspect that breaking ceramics released the power of the they offering break the vessel and scatter it around the cave there’s almost always one piece missing so we think that the maya took one piece with them and perhaps buried it outside the cave the team pushes deeper into the cave maya priests relied on ropes made of vines to get here but even with modern climbing gear fadima’s journey still takes three hours she finally reaches the cave’s most sacred point and
discovers an extraordinary underworld ancient maya paintings adorn the walls of the cave’s burial tomb one image uses the contours of the cave to create a unique three-dimensional jaguar another portrays a mythical hunt with a ghost-like jaguar and deer what’s striking about this painting is that their representations are not of living beings they are in the underworld in the world of death look at the body of the jaguar it’s skinny it hasn’t been well-fed and it has a deliberate mark in the middle we think these marks represent illness significant farima has studied art in many maya caves but never has seen paintings like these they are clearly maya but their unusual style suggests that whoever painted them was not part of the maya civilization of the south stylistic analysis of the paintings and the ceramic offerings in the chamber indicate the murals were painted around
100 bc that makes them among the oldest maya paintings ever discovered in mexico the painting state to the dawn of the maya civilization scholars call it the pre-classic period that was 800 years before the refugees from the south arrived in the yucatan so who painted these murals discoveries at another extraordinary new site may answer that question just outside the modern yucatan city of mirada excavation for a new road network is unearthing scores of sights just by chance 190 new maya towns to date and counting the map of the ancient yucatan is shifting rapidly exploding with previously unknown cities and towns we’ve found that there’s a lot more people a lot more agriculture and a lot more happening here than we ever imagined and at a much earlier date than we ever imagined we thought they were just little hamlets out here now now we’ll have very complex towns
and we might even have urban centers the whole idea of a much more complex society is emerging up here and it’s on the par i think with guatemala we were walking right by these sites for decades without understanding them it wasn’t like we had to go dig for these places they were right under our noses we just weren’t seeing them which is amazing if you think about it [Music] george bay and his team resumed their work in key week clearing stones from the side of the pyramid they’re doing detective work trying to figure out why a vault stone typically used to hold up the ceiling of a building was found buried inside the pyramid another clue emerges suggesting something is very different about this pyramid this is something the workers found and they happened to at the last second before they threw it away they turned it over and notice that in fact it’s a piece of
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sculpture a sculptured face here’s the face with the nose and the upper part of the the mouth so then you have to ask yourself what’s this that’s over this face and what it is is part of a large headdress and mask that this lord would have been wearing [Music] the ancient maya often attached sculptures like this one to the facades of royal buildings it’s a watershed clue [Applause] [Music] and those stairs further excavation reveals the corner of a building this is the upper part of the preserved building and this is what we call a broken molding over the doorway this pile of rubble here is still filling the doorway you can see remnants of the stucco here probably mottled and painted as the team peels back the pyramid a royal palace emerges it
consists of three buildings a temple on one side the royal family’s residential quarters on the other and a throne room in the middle but why would the king of key week build a pyramid on top of a palace maya like to see spaces as having power it’s not uncommon to see in many different forms the building of one building on top of another because sacred spaces important places are powerful our argument is that this is attempts to legitimize power george believes an early king of key week perhaps even the founder of the town’s royal dynasty built the palace centuries later another king built the pyramid over his ancestors home making a direct connection to his ancestors power enhancing his own the palace may be most remarkable for another reason the king who built the pyramid was not a late transplant from the south but a descendant of a royal family that had
been in key week for a very long time it now seems clear that here in the yucatan there was a previously unknown maya mega society that was just as old and just as powerful as the south we don’t really know where the cradle or genesis of maya society is anymore what we’re learning is that there may have been multiple cradles guatemala can no longer lay sole claim to the title birthplace of the maya [Music] [Applause] now that the existence of this northern mega society is confirmed the questions rapidly multiply who were these lost maya and why were they forgotten the average person that thinks about maya sees these great monumental cities what they don’t realize is that for every one of those cities there are dozens of medium-sized towns like kiwi that house maybe three four thousand people from a lookout tower near kiwi it’s easier to make sense out of the entire site in bay’s view key week was the quintessential northern town you’re actually looking at what would have been downtown kewee the city of kiwi where that small hill is that’s the center of the city when bay began his research he believed the extent of kiwi
was limited to the core area around the pyramid but lidar mapping later revealed a sprawling hilltop estate with a massive staircase across the valley suggesting kiwi might have been the hub of a much bigger complex every morning the excavation team climbs the 200-foot hill the ancient maya would have come up that path which would have led right to this spot what you see is basically a pile of rocks but if you were standing here 850 a.d what you’d be standing at the base of is an enormous stairway which would have taken you up to the top of what we think is the the palace or the plantation house or the big house even the modern sense a very palatial kind of construction they’ve dubbed the site stairway to heaven a place like stairway to heaven is amazing in the sense that they built a 9 10 room mansion up there and that’s a very nice building you know a 9th century mcmansion okay living up on top of that hill but who would have been rich enough and audacious enough to build
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such over-the-top real estate archaeologist stephanie sims is digging for answers tearing up the floor of one of the 22 large stone buildings that make up the estate under the floor a tantalizing clue here i am sitting beneath the floor level being right here of a three-room elite residence up on the hilltop and here just beneath the floor are a few capstones covering a dedicatory offering the offering consists of a ceramic bowl and plate that appear to have been placed under the floor when the house was built it’s a little suspicious that it would be odd to place a plate upside down like that without covering something so [Music] as the team
carefully removes the plate specks of evidence surface little teeny fragments very badly decomposed kind of eroded degraded bone still can’t tell yet whether it’s human bone or animal bone but my guess is human the large capstones flanking the offering may be hiding something else it was common practice of the maya to rebury the defleshed bones of their deceased ancestors it’s called secondary burial our thinking with these secondary burials is that they’re bringing bones or parts of family members to new locations to sanctify the structures that they’re building the capstones under the floor of the house come off a human tooth
confirming our suspicions that this is a human burial this is a lower incisor right here there are several and we’re still waiting to uncover to see how many there are though badly decomposed from the acidic soil stephanie can make out the remains of a human skull and arm and leg bones so this demonstrates to us this offering is part of the the burial underneath dedicating this house back in the lab stephanie happily discovers that this skull’s owner was not a daily brusher or flosser embedded in the teeth 1200 year old plaque chemical analysis of food particles in the plaque gives stephanie a hint about what kind of wealth stairways owners have i’m finding a much greater diversity of plant food items that were consumed ingredients in stews and soups squash beans free fruits chili peppers the bounty suggests that the people who lived at stairway were major plantation owners operating extensive farms in the valley below their hilltop estate [Music] as george’s team surveys nearby hills it’s clear that stairway is not an isolated example but one of dozens of estates indicators of widespread wealth start to emerge many
secondary buildings at sites like stairway houses belonging to skilled workers like this one are built of stone a rarity in ancient central america that’s amazing what it suggests is that we’re not looking at a large peasant population that’s under the hands of a very small royal elite but that wealth and prosperity have spread over almost half of the population key week may be evidence of america’s very first middle class nearly a millennium before north america’s colonial middle class these people might have had opportunities they might have been able to acquire land i mean it’s kind of fun to think about it that they might have been living the maya dream [Music] if there was such a thing as the maya dream this is where it happened kiwi and
stairway are nestled in a lush region of the yucatan called the pook soil here is fertile natural resources abundant it looks like an ideal place for human habitation except for one thing the pook region has no water sources no rivers lakes streams creeks these people depended on controlling collecting and managing rain water so how did they do it just a few hundred feet from the stairway estate house archaeologist bill ringel has found an answer water falls heavily here but only six months of the year for the rest of the time it dries out and virtually no rain falls and this was one of the primary adaptations of the pukamaya to this rather waterless environment this underground cavern is actually a man-made cistern called a chiltoon it was a work of
sophisticated engineering carved out of the limestone bedrock over here we can see how these chiltoons were constructed first of all they would bore through the harder cap rock and then once they got in under to this underlying softer model they would excavate out and make this large chamber the last stage would be to to cover it with stucco and you can see the thickness of the stucco here this this pinkish material the stucco functioned as a waterproof lining [Music] the maya expertly engineered the patios rooftops and plazas of stairway to heaven to capture every last drop of rain water then drained it into eight chol tunes scattered throughout the estate the entire hilltop functioned as a giant rain barrel so how many people could this ingenious waterworks support bill ringle and engineer andrew willis use an early version of lidar technology to map the chol tune the resulting 3d model allows them to calculate water capacity up to 10 000 gallons in each of the stairways chol tunes provided a reliable source of water for the entire community the typical family of six consumed 27 gallons a day so stairways chiltoons could have supported seven families through three rainless months [Music] these advanced water works formed a liquid
foundation for life on stairway and for dozens of other wealthy kingdoms like key week nearby [Music] and sitting at the very top of that foundation was a royal elite george bay has found hints of their surprising wealth hidden in the jungle the ruins of a majestic palace [Music] it represents a time in the history of the of the royal family of key week when great amount of wealth was being accrued by the royal family and they were expressing it through the construction of a massive new palace the king of kiwi had built the pyramid over his old palace so on the adjacent lot he upgraded to deluxe new accommodations the new
palace boasted 15 major buildings and two ceremonial plazas from previous finds george knows the buildings were adorned in ornate sculpture and painted stucco [Music] this is one of the best preserved buildings in the new palace you can see the remains of the stucco but they would have been painted sometimes with elaborate murals and then there would have been beams hung from certain parts of the roof for curtains or tapestries and a variety of furniture would have found its way in here kings like things like jaguar skin sofas fancy pillows this simple room would have perhaps been quite luxurious by 800 a.d the
northern maya society is over 1500 years old its people have mastered this harsh landscape their facility with water allows for large-scale farming and generates vast wealth for their kings and even for a new middle class imagine this place 800 a.d you would have seen the vast landscape of towns villages cities the smoke rising from thousands of cooking fires as women prepared the evening meals men coming back from their fields [Music] but along with this portrait of a prosperous society bay’s colleagues bill ringel and tomas gaierda are finding evidence of a disturbing political trend on the rise 20 miles from key week is the majestic city of uzma in the 800s it rose to become the powerful political capital of the region local kings like the king of
kiwi likely traveled here to conduct diplomacy and pay tribute to uzma’s royalty ringgel wants to show bay how these buildings underwent a peculiar modification in the 800s an unmistakable new image was added to their facades what’s really interesting is that little image right there a feathered serpent and actually there are two feathered serpents here when they intertwine across the facade you need visual image ringle believes the serpents are a symbol of a powerful religious cult [Music] it was called quetzalcoatl or the feathered serpent the so-called cult of quetzalcoatl perhaps a better way to think about it is a political ideology and of course it had religious overtones cult’s perhaps the wrong word because it suggests something kind of small-
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scale and extra-governmental this was political ideology front and center to gain admittance into this cult a local king like key weeks had to submit to a rigorous initiation the priest would very often sequester the initiate for several days he would undergo rituals of self-mortification artwork from the time depicted rituals involving bloodletting ceremonies in which initiates pierced their penises and other body parts that would be a very interesting way to uh to sacrifice yourself obviously very painful another image on the facade represents the journey of an initiate a small man being spit out of the mouth of a feathered serpent we can see the little man moving through his body to emerge as a transformed being and he’s being transformed precisely because of the rituals of initiation that involved quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent carvings at us mall suggest the cult swept through the north in the 800s as local kings bought into the new ideology political tensions started to rise it may have fostered competition between those who wish to adhere to this new ideology and those who wish to remain true to the traditional
ideology of the maya area at the new palace in key week george finds signs that in the midst of the boom times something else seems to go wrong we see this big pile of rock up here in front of the building and it makes really not too much sense at the beginning you have this beautiful building here on this side with these rooms you have a set of rooms on the other side and right in the middle you have a big chunk of rubble we conclude that what we’re looking at is a actual staircase that was built by workers to give them access to the upper stories of the building here is a scaffold system being used by the maya as part of the construction techniques okay now it’s not gone the stairway is still here if the building was finished they would have removed the stairway the indications of the scaffolding are is that you’re seeing construction happening you’re not seeing a finished
building another part of key week’s palace shows similar signs of a sudden halt in construction the second story walls of a building are laid out on the ground by masons but never erected all of these characteristics are evidence that the city was in full bloom that architects were employed that the king was feeling confident and powerful about what he was doing that the city was part of a world that was blossoming and expanding and not this idea of the king being miss havisham sitting among a ruined house as things slowly fell apart for him and his world collapsed this is a very different kind of uh image for what was going on here [Music] so what brought key week’s boom times to a screeching halt at first war seems an obvious explanation for the stoppage but an exhaustive search turns up no arrowheads and no spear points but then at stairway to heaven the hilltop estate the team finds clues that at the same time construction halted on the palace this site was abruptly abandoned
however this is fantastic you have probably five or six vessels smashed on the floor from the time of the abandonment you know i i think some of them would have been left here on the floor others were probably hanging from the walls but these people were not running for their lives the evidence suggests an orderly departure pots carefully hung on wall pegs are set to the sides of rooms they were left intact and only broke later as the abandoned building began to crumble it looks like most of them are right along the edges of the interior which really looks like they’re taking some time to put these vessels somewhere to guard them at the time they’re leaving them kind of like making things neat right before you leave the house kind of tidying up in some way so what could have caused this carefully planned abandonment of stairway and the abrupt work stoppage at the
palace at stairway to heaven data indicates cisterns would have armed the maya for three months without rain a few months longer with emergency water rationing but evidence from core samples suggests this would not have been enough we find eight of these bands that suggests in fact that it wasn’t just like one massive drought it was probably a series of droughts that have durations about three to twenty years and you know every time things would get going again they would get pounded with a fairly long duration drought at some point the droughts overwhelmed stairway leaving only one option all it would take would be a short period of time in which there is no water in those cisterns and those people would have to leave that hill it’s simply impossible to live there the various families elite families they were reaching a point where they were having to make a very difficult decision which was to leave stairway to heaven [Music] they loaded what they could of their lives onto their backs and
carefully stored the rest when the rains returned they fully expected they would too [Music] the maya knew about droughts they were probably a civilization designed to respond not only to managing rainwater but managing a lack of rainwater too it’s not a surprise they left what becomes the question for us is why they don’t come back so why didn’t stairway’s residents and the king of kiwi survive these droughts as they clearly had in the past the extreme intensity of these droughts was disastrous making a carefully managed response their only hope but bay and ringel speculate the north’s political establishment was falling into disarray distracted by the cult of the feathered serpent the collapse in the northern mile apparently began during the 9th century and that’s also the time period during which this feathered serpent ideology was introduced and this
undoubtedly led to rivalries with respect to power brokering ringle thinks the political situation may have become so extreme that there was no longer any governmental system capable of organizing their return with a stable government the northern maya might have survived but it wasn’t to be and within a century the major cities and towns of the north just like the south were left in ruins today the empty jungles of the yucatan serve as a reminder that even great civilizations can fail as the years passed slowly the jungle reclaimed these magnificent buildings whole towns and cities vanished under a green wave they became secrets of the forest only now thanks to new technology and fieldwork can the extent of what was lost come into view you