Breaking down the mythical 'Maya city' discovery

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Story highlights

  • A Canadian teen says he found an ancient Maya city using Google Earth and satellite images
  • Experts say the images do not show a city, but rather the dregs of more recent agricultural activity

(CNN)We're all suckers for a great story, and "Teen finds lost Maya city" definitely sounds promising. Throw in some ancient cosmology, a little help from the Canadian Space Agency and some satellite sleuthing, and the movie offers practically write themselves. Sadly, the reality may not be as cinematic as promised.

Experts say the "city" found by Canadian teen William Gadoury could be something much simpler: Abandoned fields.
    This whole archaeological kerfuffle started as a tantalizing possibility: Gadoury, 15, says he used Maya constellation patterns to pinpoint ruins of a heretofore unknown ancient Maya city. The Canadian Space Agency helped him out and provided satellite imagery of the site, which was cross-referenced with images from Google Maps. The results seemed to show squarish areas and clusters of what could be structures.
    Satellite imagery showing the alignment of constellations over the discovered site
    The result was catnip for science and history lovers. The Journal de Montreal first published the findings on May 7, and dozens of articles soon followed, breathlessly recounting the discovery of the "lost city."
    Alas, once the story got big enough, anthropologists and archaeologists specializing in Mesoamerican studies began pouring some cold water on it.
    Dr. Robert Rosenswig is an associate professor at the University of Albany, SUNY, who uses Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, and Google Earth as part of a regional settlement pattern project near Chiapas, Mexico. In other words, he has a lot of experience looking at stuff from above, specifically stuff related to Mesoamerican civilizations. He told CNN he sees several points of concern in this new "discovery."
    It's unlikely a city of that size would go unnoticed: The site, located north of the Mexico-Belize border on the Yucatan Peninsula, is reported to be 80 to 120 square kilometers in size. This would make it one of the largest known Maya cities, Rosenswig said, and that should raise some questions. "That area of Mexico is not that inaccessible, and its fairly well known," he said. "So the idea that this size city could go undetected, although not impossible, is highly unlikely."
    Satellite imagery does not provide enough depth or height information: "One thing you can't see is how tall the structures are," Rosenswig said. When presented with one of the images that Gadoury thought could represent a pyramid, Rosenwig had another interpretation. "I would be willing to bet that's not a pyramid. It looks like a depression," he said. "I've seen reports of the presence of a 30 meter tall structure (here), but how can you tell?"
    The image looks like a fallow field: "The images highlight lower areas in vegetation," Rosenswig said. "The square structures are open fields that have been left fallow. (A fallow field has been cleared, but nothing has been planted there.) To be clear, even if the square area in the image is fallow field, it certainly doesn't date back to the time of the ancient Maya. "The environment is such that, if you cleared a field, it would be overgrown in a matter of months," he said.
    Other experts in the field have expressed similar reservations. David Stuart, the director of the Mesoamerica Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and anthropologist Thomas Garrison are just some of the individuals who have gone on record saying they don't think the images show any kind of "lost city."
    Of course, compromising the hard work of a budding teenage archaeologist is never fun, so it's important to note there are several critical assumptions the young man did get right.
    For one, the Maya were very attuned to the cosmos. "(The ancient Maya) had knowledge of the movements of various constellations and planets, and it shows up on their iconography," Rosenswig said.
    Alignment, cosmological and otherwise, was also an extremely important factor in Maya city planning, and Rosenswig said he's seen firsthand how astrological significance and local geological features were considered.
    "At the city where I work near Chiapas, we've determined the entire city was set up and aligned with a local volcano as well as the sunrise and the winter solstice," he said.
    It's easy to see why such a fascinating civilization could inspire a bit of imaginative research. While his ancient Maya "city" may not hold the truths William Gadoury was hoping for, his story still captivated inquisitive minds around the world.