Radar Reveals Canals at Mayan Agricultural Centers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Radar images indicated the presence of a network of canals in areas surrounding Mayan population centers. With the development of aerial radar mapping, it became significantly easier for scientists to screen large, unexplored areas for the presence of human-made structures.


The radar land-mapping technique altered the way archaeology is viewed and added much to existing knowledge about the Mayan civilization. Traditionally, archaeology has been thought of as a science requiring laborious methods and extensive human resources to accomplish the work of literally uncovering past civilizations. With this new tool of aerial radar mapping, however, it became significantly easier for researchers to screen large unexplored areas for the presence of human-made structures. The past image of archaeology involving hundreds of laborers removing debris was replaced by the image of technicians poring over airborne images. Agriculture;Mayan centers

Knowledge of the Maya also changed. It was never fully understood why the Maya would build large cities in what appeared to be vast swamps. Because these lands, when drained, could provide a stable agricultural base, the Maya might have considered this land the most valuable. The extent of the network of canals indicates a high degree of centralization; an estimated 2,500 square kilometers (or 250,000 hectares) of land in Belize and the Peten region alone were subjected to this type of hydraulic engineering.

The work was not easily accomplished, as the indigenous culture did not have the wheel, any draft animals, or iron tools prior to the arrival of Western explorers. This means that all the work was done manually, with stone tools and baskets to move the debris. A research team tried to replicate the construction of a raised field using tools and techniques that the Maya would have employed. From this work, the team estimated that it would have taken a minimum of 500,000 laborers to build the fields in fifty years. Another possibility is that the system of canals may have evolved during the life span of this culture. Like all Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayan culture had at its base the farmer. It is reasonable to assume that during the height of the society, as many as 10 million people were working the land.

This revelation also helped scientists to reevaluate how the agricultural capabilities of the tropical rain forest are viewed. The practice of slash-and-burn farming bankrupts the fragile soil, whereas the use of silt and aquatic plants dredged from those canals can act to build the topsoil, add additional nutrients, and lead to more productive farming practices. Some observers have expressed hope that the people of Central America will take advantage of the new knowledge gained in the study of the Maya. By the early years of the twenty-first century, a shift appeared to be starting, with the training of native farmers in a more regenerative style of agriculture. This is likely to be the most lasting impact of the discovery and study of the canal systems of the Mayan civilization. Agriculture;Mayan centers Mayan civilization Radar;mapping Archaeology;radar mapping Aerial radar mapping

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adams, Richard E. W., Walter E. Brown, Jr., and T. Patrick Culbert. “Radar Mapping, Archaeology, and Ancient Maya Land Use.” Science 213 (September 25, 1980): 1457-1463. Outlines the discovery of waterways through the use of aerial radar. Excellent bibliography covers the work done by previous investigators studying Mayan land use.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Demarest, Arthur. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Accessible work details the ecological bases and volatile political history of the civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, C. Bruce. A Guide to Ancient Maya Ruins. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974. Interesting, basic resource on Mayan cities and culture. Careful reading reveals the misconceptions that were long prevalent concerning Mayan agriculture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ivanoff, Pierre. Maya. New York: Madison Square Press, 1973. Photographic record of fifteen different Mayan cities. One of the best books available for readers interested in major cultural landmarks of the Maya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephens, John L. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. 2 vols. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1963. Provides an excellent firsthand account of the rediscovered ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula. Includes drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, B. L., II, and Peter D. Harrison. “Prehistoric Raised-Field Agriculture in the Maya Lowlands.” Science 213 (July 24, 1981): 399-404. Discusses at length the excavation of a Mayan settlement in the Belize lowlands.

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