Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Not a Lost Maya City After All

Over the last couple of days, the story of how a Canadian teenager allegedly located a lost Mayan city has been all over the Internet. The teenager, William Gadoury, presented the hypothesis that Mayan cities were placed according to the shape of constellations. Scientists from the Canadian space agency decided to test it out, pointing an imaging satellite at one of the predicted locations. Pictures from the satellite seemed to show evidence of man-made structures.

It makes for a great story, but as this article in Wired points out, the results are not nearly as impressive as they seem for several reasons. Not only is the site reasonably close to other known Mayan ruins, but the square image may not even show the remnants of a city. For example, it could easily be an abandoned field originally cleared in the shape of a square far more recently than the height of Mayan civilization.

Satellite imagery can be a powerful tool for studying the ancient world. “Space archaeologists” like Sarah Parcak want to use readily available data like this to lower the barriers to entry in science, and a teenager finding a long-lost city would be a pretty stunning proof of concept. But that isn’t what the images show. The square in the CSA’s satellite images is probably an abandoned field, and another spot may be a small dry lake or clearing in the jungle, says archaeologist Ivan Ć prajc. Gizmodo, in its updated story, has noted the same about the square structure.

Moreover, experts are skeptical of the claim that the Maya built their cities according to constellations. They did indeed have constellations, but there is no complete canonical list of them, so the theory is hard to test. “Maya constellations that we know of, with the exception of Scorpio, bear no relation to those we find on modern star maps,” says Anthony Aveni, a founder of the field of archaeoastronomy. What seem like bizarre locations for cities can be explained by other factors, like access to swamp mud for their terraces.

And no matter what your star map tells you, chances are good you’ll hit upon a settlement in that area. “The Maya area was so densely occupied in Classic Maya times that many years ago a well known archaeologist, Ed Kurjack, told me that the area looked much like the Ohio Valley, denuded of trees and full of towns that were fairly close to one another,” wrote Susan Milbrath, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in an email. “So at any given point you would be likely to find an archaeological site.” The archaeologist Richard Hansen pointed out that the location appears to be very close to that of the ancient Mayan city of Uxul, which has been under excavation since 2009—not exactly a long-lost city.

As an esotericist, the biggest red flag for me with the entire idea is that the Maya almost certainly would have had a completely different set of constellations than those originating in the Middle East. There's no reason whatsoever to think that Mayan cities would be laid out according to Western constellations. Maybe if we had a definitive list of Mayan constellations we could make a connection, but that information was most likely destroyed during the Spanish conquest and no longer exists.

Beyond that, even using the Maya constellations, if the area was as densely settled as Kurjack claims, then basically any predictive model would be reasonably likely to find something. To do a real scientific evaluation of this hypothesis, you would have to compare the "constellation" model to one that picks points in the area at random and then see if there's any statistical difference between them. If there isn't, the hypothesis should be considered disproved.

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