"Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings"
Premieres Tuesday, February 6 at 9 PM ET/PT
on National Geographic Channel
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.
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, using technology to survey over 2,000 square kilometers 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.
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 kilometer-long area would have been covered with farms and capable of supplying food to potentially the entire region around Tikal.