For many decades, archaeologists have kept their eye on the ground in hopes to spot traces left by lost civilizations such as the Khmer Empire in Cambodia and the Maya in Mexico and Central America.

Excavations and airborne laser mapping on the Aguada Fénix, a once unknown site to Mexico, have unearthed the oldest and largest known structure built by Maya people. It is estimated that the raised ceremonial area made of clay and Earth was constructed from around 1000 B.C. to 800 B.C., according to the report from the scientists on June 3 in the journal Nature.

This discovery adds to the recent evidence that Maya civilization built monumental structures from its beginnings around 3,000 years ago. Meanwhile, a 950 B.C. smaller ritual area that looks similar to the discovery was found by Inomata's team at a Maya site in Guatemala called Ceibal.

Laser Mapping

Archaeologists used the jungle-piercing lasers, a new remote technique called lidar or Light Detection and Ranging, that can produce detailed models of any terrain, revealing secrets usually hidden by tree canopies and forests.

It is increasing the speed and scale of archaeological discoveries and has now revealed the ceremonial structure that covers more ground than the Great Pyramid at Gaza, Egypt. According to reports, the structure consists of an artificial 15-meter-high or 50 feet platform measuring 1,413 meters or 4,635 feet north to south and measures under 400 meters or 1,312 feet from east to west.

Takeshi Inomata, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the lead author of a paper on the discovery, said that "it is so huge horizontally that if you walk on the site, it looks like a part of the natural landscape. You would not recognize its rectangular shape. But in lidar, it came out nice."

Lidar relies on laser pulses emitted from a plane or drone, and the signals that bounce back produces data. Image processing digitally removes the vegetation to reveal models of bare terrain.

The structure's sharp corners and straight lines clearly imply that it is crafted by humans rather than natural geological processes.

Indeed, lidar plays a significant role in discovering the hidden structure which would have taken many seasons and laborious mapping on the ground before it is found.

Read Also: Norway is Excavating First Ever Viking Ship in 115 Years But Needs to Save it First From Fungus

How Did Community Life Develop?

CNN reports that this discovery sheds light on how community life develops, which includes its ritual activities and religious or astronomical observances.

McAnany believes that sedentary life was generally thought to have paved the way for rituals, but novel evidence suggests it was the other way around. 

The newly discovered site implies that its inhabitants led a partially mobile life because residential platforms are not common.

The discovery calls into question the traditional view of inequality on social classes in which the site shows no evidence of it. Inomata said that this means construction os Aguad Fénix was done in the "absence of powerful elite."

Though there are leaders who played central roles in planning and organizing the work, people voluntarily participated in such constructions. This could mean that human collaboration does not necessarily require a centralized government.

Read more: Last Meal of a Huge 110-million-year-old Armor-plated Dinosaur Discovered in Its 'Exceptionally Preserved' Form