PerspectiveArchaeology

Above and below the Maya forest

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Science  28 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6409, pp. 1313-1314
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav0887

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Summary

Reports of lost cities in the Maya forest began with the remarkable pictorial folios that Stephens and Catherwood produced from their journeys in the 1830s (1) and that inspired the Carnegie Institution of Washington's expeditions in the early 20th century (2). This research focused on major architecture: the grandest temples, plazas, tombs, and palaces built for Maya aristocrats. The singular attention paid to rulers illuminated Maya politics and religion but left a major lacuna in knowledge of the populace. To fill this gap, later fieldwork mapped the humble housemounds to interpret settlement patterns at the detailed site scale (35). On page 1355 of this issue, Canuto et al. (6) use a remote sensing method called light detection and ranging (lidar) to examine regional-scale settlement patterns and implications for sustainability in the Maya forest. Their conclusions support extensive settlement densities, as has been expected, and suggest substantial land modifications that affect assessments of sustainability.