Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings Rewrites History as New National Geographic Special Reveals Unprecedented Scale and Sophistication of Mysterious Ancient Civilization

02/01/18 02:00 PM EST

Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings Rewrites History as New National Geographic Special Reveals Unprecedented Scale and Sophistication of Mysterious Ancient Civilization

Aerial LiDAR Survey Of Guatemalan Jungle Peels Away the Canopy To Reveal Unknown Cities And More Than 60,000 Man-Made Structures, Confirming Maya Civilization Was Much Larger Than Previously Thought

One Hour, Archaeology-in-Action Special Premieres Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 9/8c on National Geographic

There are entire cities that have never been found before, that are all of a sudden being revealed” – National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin in Lost Treasures of The Maya Snake Kings.

From Egypt to China, the great civilizations of the ancient world have been long-studied and are instantly recognizable. The Maya, one of the more mysterious ancient civilizations, has never been considered on the same scale, until now. A pioneering new survey of the Guatemalan jungle using a remote surveying method to see through the forest canopy, has mapped the ground below to reveal more than 60,000 previously unknown structures that reveal a vast, interconnected network of cities, fortifications, farms and highways. It also reveals an engineered and managed landscape with specialized areas of agriculture capable of sustaining a massive population with food on an almost industrial scale. This complete re-write of long-held beliefs about the Maya is told for the very first time in National Geographic’s Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings, premiering Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 9/8c.

For decades, archaeologists toiled in dense jungle to piece together their knowledge of the Maya. Hampered by the thick forest, their findings lead to the theory that Maya cities were largely isolated and self-sufficient. However, this long-held belief is now being overturned by Guatemala's PACUNAM LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) Initiative, a consortium of over 30 scientists and archaeologists from leading academic institutions worldwide organised and funded by the PACUNAM Foundation, which has used expensive technology to survey over 2,000 square kilometres of Guatemalan forest by plane. The findings – depicted in epic new digital maps and an Augmented Reality application translating the aerial data into a ground view that was custom-designed for the documentary – lay bare the landscape below the foliage without a single tree or creeper having to be cut down. They suggest earlier Maya population assessments of one to two million fall far short of new estimates up to 20 million inhabitants across the Maya Lowlands – a figure that places around half the entire population of Europe at the time, in an area roughly the size of Italy.

“It’s like a magic trick,” one of the archaeologists leading the project, Tom Garrison, says in the one-hour special, adding, “The survey is the most important development in Maya archaeology in 100 years.”

As archaeologists piece together details about the complexity and extent of the Maya civilization, they are also looking closely at who was responsible for ruling such a vast society. Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings reveals how an obscure royal dynasty known as the Snake Kings rose to dominate the Maya world through conquest, marriage and puppet kings. Until experts had deciphered Mayan inscriptions, the Snake Kings were completely unknown. Now, the evidence points to their power extending from Mexico and Belize, down through Guatemala. In 562, they even conquered Tikal, the greatest Maya city of all.

Tikal, a popular tourist destination and one of the most studied cities of the Maya world, is now being seen in a new light, with the LiDAR survey revealing a previously unknown pyramid in the very center of the city. Overlooked by archaeologists as a natural feature, this is one of the most important findings in central Tikal in decades. Additionally, the LiDAR data reveals the city is three to four times larger than previously thought. On the outskirts of Tikal and many other locations, the LiDAR data reveals extensive defenses and fortifications, supporting the radical new theory that the Maya engaged in large scale wars.

Francisco Estrada-Belli, a National Geographic Explorer and one of the archaeologists jointly leading the Initiative has been exploring the ancient Maya city of Holmul for nearly two decades, encountering evidence of the Snake Kings’ legacy along the way. Excavating a giant frieze carved in stone and a royal tomb deep within the city’s pyramids, he has pieced together clues about a seventh century king and queen, and how they fit into the Snake King’s vast dynasty. In the swampy valley around the city, he uses the LiDAR data to show how thousands of acres were drained, irrigated and converted into farmland on an astonishing scale. Akin to the central valley of California, the 20 kilometre-long area would have been covered with farms and capable of supplying food to potentially the entire region around Tikal.

“There are entire cities we didn’t know about now showing up in the survey data,” says Estrada-Belli in the special. “There are 20,000 square kilometres more to be explored and there are going to be hundreds of cities in there that we don’t know about. I guarantee you.”

One of those previously unknown sites is where National Geographic Explorer Albert Lin heads off to in Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake Kings. With the new LiDAR data as his guide, he is dropped into the jungle and must hike for miles on foot to locate the newly revealed structure. Having only mapped one tenth of the targeted area, the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative still has much to reveal, but Lin locates the pyramid he is seeking. Seven-stories high, it is still mostly intact but so covered in growth it is near invisible to the naked eye. It will take generations of scientific effort to fully explore all of the new findings.

“We just followed a map created by lasers in the sky, using a helicopter to get into the jungle, and then bush whacked for hours to this point, to find this,” Lin says while standing before the pyramid in Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings. He adds, “This LiDAR data is essentially re-writing the history of the Maya.”

Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings is produced by Wild Blue Media for National Geographic. For Wild Blue Media, executive producer is Cameron Balbirnie. For National Geographic, the executive producer is Carolyn Payne; Hamish Mykura is executive vice president, programming and development; and Tim Pastore is president of original programming and production.

About National Geographic Partners LLC

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About Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya, PACUNAM

Fundación Pacunam (Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya) was founded in 2006 in Guatemala as a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering scientific research, conservation and sustainable development of cultural and natural resources in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of over 21,000 square kilometres in northern Guatemala. Funding for Pacunam comes from leading Guatemalan organisations, including Cerveceria Centroamericana, Grupo Campollo, Cementos Progreso, Blue Oil, Banco Industrial, and ASAZGUA (Asociación de Azucareros de Guatemala), among others; as well as international donors, including Hitz Foundation.

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