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Recent news stories have reported on the discovery of a lost Mayan city by William Gadoury, a 15-year-old from Canada.

According to these reports, Gadoury noticed a correspondence between the locations of Mayan cities and Mayan constellations (the articles I have read do not go into more detail) and then analysed satellite imagery in the region of a "missing" city, and noticed the outlines of several rectangular structures beneath a forest canopy.

For example, see this article in The Independent, which says

William Gadoury, from Quebec, came up with the theory that the Maya civilization chose the location of its towns and cities according to its star constellations.

He found Mayan cities lined up exactly with stars in the civilization's major constellations.

Studying the star map further, he discovered one city was missing from a constellation of three stars.

Using satellite images provided by the Canadian Space Agency and then mapped on to Google Earth, he discovered the city where the third star of the constellation suggested it would be.

Is there any truth to this story? What evidence is there to suggest that Gadoury has discovered a hidden Mayan city (as opposed to, for example, some reasonably old but much more recent set of man-made structures hidden beneath the forest canopy)?

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    Are you aware that this story has been covered by multiple reputable news agencies, including BBC, CBC, National Post, Journal de Montreal, Newsweek, Daily Mail, Express, Huffington Post, Channel 9 Australia.... Canadian Space Agency is also involved. – DJClayworth May 11 '16 at 17:08
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    @DJClayworth I am aware of that - but (a) to take a recent example, multiple reputable news agencies reported that Craig Wright was Satoshi Nakamoto, which is now not widely believed, and (b) many of the articles have been updated to reflect the fact that there is skepticism about the discovery of this city, for example "Some experts have expressed scepticism at William's findings. Dr. David Stuart, an anthropologist from the University of Texas, wrote "ancient Maya didn't plot their ancient cities according to constellations". Stuart described the square feature as an 'old fallow cornfield'." – Chris Taylor May 11 '16 at 17:14
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    The reports are saying that Gadoury may have discovered a lost Mayan city. Are you asking us to verify that the reports are correct, or whether future investigation will confirm the findings? Because there is no way we can predict what future investigations will show. – DJClayworth May 11 '16 at 17:16
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    I'm obviously not asking anyone to predict the future. I am asking what the current evidence is (because I am not an expert on Mayan civilisation or archaeology). – Chris Taylor May 11 '16 at 17:18
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    I wonder if anyone can explain what "correspondence between the locations of Mayan cities and Mayan constellations" is supposed to mean. From the point of view of astronomy this is gibberish. – fdb May 12 '16 at 10:26
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Probably not.

There are two factors here:

  1. Did the Mayans actually base their city locations on their civilization's constellations?

  2. Given A, is the structure discovered actually a city?

The answer to both is probably "No".

This article has multiple updates that feature expert commentary on both issues. On the constellation issue, from Ivan Šprajc from the Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies in Slovenia:

Very few Maya constellations have been identified, and even in these cases we do not know how many and which stars exactly composed each constellation. It is thus impossible to check whether there is any correspondence between the stars and the location of Maya cities. In general, since we know of several environmental facts that influenced the location of Maya settlements, the idea correlating them with stars is utterly unlikely.

OK, but maybe he got lucky and the structure he found was actually a city anyway. In reality, it is almost certainly a cornfield that is a few decades old:

Thomas Garrison, an anthropologist at USC Dornsife and an expert in remote sensing, says these objects are relic corn fields (or milpas):

I applaud the young kid’s effort and it’s exciting to see such interest in the ancient Maya and remote sensing technology in such a young person. However, ground-truthing is the key to remote sensing research. You have to be able to confirm what you are identifying in a satellite image or other type of scene. In this case, the rectilinear nature of the feature and the secondary vegetation growing back within it are clear signs of a relic milpa. I’d guess its been fallow for 10-15 years. This is obvious to anyone that has spent any time at all in the Maya lowlands.

David Stuart, an anthropologist from The Mesoamerica Center-University of Texas at Austin summarizes the situation:

The current news of an ancient Maya city being discovered is false...The ancient Maya didn't plot their ancient cities according to constellations. Seeing such patterns is a rorschach process, since sites are everywhere, and so are stars. The square feature that was found on Google is indeed man-made, but it's an old fallow cornfield, or milpa.

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    "maybe he got lucky" - or has a suitable margin of error in his map to be able to include a feature within a particular radius of his initial point. Without seeing the datasets for his "constellations" and Mayan city map, we don't know how he identified this location – HorusKol May 11 '16 at 23:52
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    I'm not objecting, mind you, but "probably" is somewhat of a subjective term. Do you think that the evidence is compelling enough to warrant the cost of confirming or denying this "discovery". Or is it so obvious that it would be a complete waste? – Michael J. May 12 '16 at 11:40
  • I thought he didn't find it based on the constellation, but rather the brightest stars (which you'd think would be mostly likely to be part of a constellation, mayan or otherwise). Though given that we are rotating, I'm not sure how the position of a star (other than the north star) really correlates to a position on the planet? – Jonathan. May 12 '16 at 14:55
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    @Jonathan. Regarding the point about rotation, the idea here is that the Mayans simply replicated a "star map" on the surface of the earth, i.e. the relative positions of certain Mayan sites correspond to the relative positions of particular stars in the sky. – Era May 12 '16 at 21:56
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The evidence is inconclusive and the experts that have been interviewed think that an alternative explanation is more likely.

Popular Mechanics reports that there is no confirmation or evidence aside from the satellite views:

all the evidence lays with satellite imagery—no one has actually explored the location Gadoury spotted on Google Maps.

A CSA rep has said:

The satellite image just gives us a horizon of information — we really need to go underneath [the forest canopy] to see if there's anything

An anthropologist, Thomas Garrison, points out an explanation that would need to be ruled out by a ground visit:

However, ground-truthing is the key to remote sensing research. You have to be able to confirm what you are identifying in a satellite image or other type of scene. In this case, the rectilinear nature of the feature and the secondary vegetation growing back within it are clear signs of a relic milpa. I'd guess its been fallow for 10-15 years.

Archaeologist, Ivan Sprajc, based on his "experience in recognizing archaeological features in the Maya Lowlands", thinks it is a more recent cultivation plot:

The rectangle on the published image, supposedly a Maya site, is but an old milpa or cultivation plot, abandoned years ago, but definitely not centuries ago.

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I would like to add something to current answers:

From this article (French):

In brief:

  • He based his observations on Europeans' constellations, not Mayans'.

    Constellations are cultural constructions, Europeans' constellations are inherited from ancient Greece.

    His results now obviously does not make sense.

  • None of the "experts" quoted by Le journal de Montréal have, in fact, skills in archaeology.


Moreover, the one and only source for this story is Le journal de Montréal, which is not a serious newspaper (more of a "sensationnal" one).

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protected by Oddthinking May 13 '16 at 17:23

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