Becky took Levi’s request seriously when he asked her to explain her work to him like he was an undergrad. “Everything we view, either with the naked eye, or through a lens or image, has a spectral signature. When you project all the signatures at once they become a rainbow of color, similar to a prism. The technique called LiDAR—or Light Detection and Ranging—is like an x-ray to see the landscape without a chosen range on that spectrum of color. In our case we’re getting rid of the vegetation to see the ground below.”
“But that whole area is just a jungle. Isn’t it?” Nicholas tried to visualize that section of Guatemala. There were trees as far as the eye could see. Even from the ground the forest was so dense a person could hardly cut a foot path much less equipment to start an archaeology dig.
“Imagine flying over a small city that’s covered in clouds.” Becky’s voice filled with the wonderment of new discovery. “All you’d see is clouds, right? Now imagine flying over that same city without the clouds and seeing all the buildings. Strip away all the clouds from the jungles of Guatemala and realize there is a city underneath.”
“But there’s nothing there. Explorers have looked for archaeological sites in that region for years. There’s just a handful of buildings, ancient temples, pyramids, that kind of thing.”
“Imagine flying over New York City with low cloud cover and seeing just the tip of the Empire State Building and then removing the clouds and seeing that what you thought was one building is actually an entire city. That’s what they’re finding in Guatemala. Everywhere.”
“Imagine removing the cloud cover from the entire East Coast and realizing what you thought was a couple of buildings is actually a city that spans from Boston down through New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and beyond.”
“A megalopolis.” Nicholas knew enough about urban geography to understand if one metropolis, like New York City, is too close to another metropolis, like Philadelphia, they are no longer seen as two metropolises; they are a megalopolis. What she was saying was mind blowing. There weren’t any cities in the jungles of Guatemala. “What does this have to do with archeology? And linguistics?”
“Let me start with archeology,” Becky said. “What if you could see not just buildings that exist now, but buildings that existed a thousand years ago? Two thousand years ago?”
“If I didn’t know how incredibly intelligent you are, I’d say you were delusional.”
“Have you ever been to the archeological dig site at Tikal?”
“Of course, it’s one of the most famous sites in all of Mesoamerica.”
“Let me show it to you on my computer screen as an aerial image.” She turned her laptop so Nicholas and Levi could see. The tree covered jungle looked very similar to how she’d described a city covered in clouds. Several tops of pyramids stuck up through the tree canopy the same way the Empire State Building would peek up through cloud cover.
“Makes me want to go back.” Nicholas felt that pull he experienced every spring. The one that made him drop everything and fly to Guatemala each summer.
“Now, let me use LiDAR to remove the trees.” The excitement in her voice told Nicholas that whatever she was going to show him was the reason she’d come all this way. With the click of her mouse, a new image emerged. An image of the same exact location minus the trees.
What appeared was a region far larger than any map he’d ever seen of Tikal with a series of squares and lines. The image confused Nicholas at first until he realized some of those squares were located at the exact spots where the known temples were located, the great plaza, the causeways. But there were many more squares than there were buildings at the dig sites. He’d been to that site eight times. Those buildings didn’t exist. “What is this, Dr. Benson?”
“Each one of those squares are foundations for buildings that are no longer there.” The wonderment and excitement re-entered her voice. “Everything with a straight edge was definitely built by humans.”
“But those buildings don’t exist.”
“Some do. They’re just covered in trees and vines and vegetation. For others, the only thing left is a foundation.”
“I’m not even sure how to react to this.”
“Let’s look at La Corona.” Becky turned her computer back toward her and clicked a few times with her mouse then turned the computer around again. Another famous dig site Nicholas visited every summer. She readied her mouse and with a simple click the image changed. “With the trees… without the trees.”
“Oh my gosh… there must be thousands of them.”
“Just in this 800 square mile study area, they estimate an additional 60,000 ancient structures, previously unknown Mayan cities and settlements sprawling across what was thought to be uninhabited wilderness. And that’s just one little study area. It’s possible there were billions of people living in this region of Mesoamerica.
“For archaeological studies in the jungle we want to get rid of all those points that come from vegetation and just leave the ground and the ancient buildings. Once all the unwanted pulses reflected from the tress are filtered out, the data that’s left allows the engineers to build a 3D model of the hidden jungle floor.”
“A treasure map.” Nicholas sat back in his chair, amazed.
Levi piped in. “This is overwhelming. But let’s circle back to my involvement. I understand why you wanted to show this to Nicholas, but what do you need me for?”
“Brace yourself for what I’m about to show you.” Becky pulled up another screen on her computer and before she turned the laptop back around, she looked at both of them with prolonged anticipation. “This was found at one of the new archeological sites.”
She turned her computer screen toward them again and both brothers gasped.