Fundamental breakthroughs in archaeology are a comparatively rare event. For every King Tut’s tomb or discovery of Troy, there’s thousands of hours of painstaking labor, whether that means tromping through jungles, excavating fragments of pottery, or pouring over ancient manuscripts preserved by volcanic eruptions. The Internet is currently erupting with stories of William Gadoury, a 15-year old Canadian who may have located an ancient Mayan city by mapping Maya constellations against other, known Mayan cities.
The initial story is that Gadoury managed to map 117 cities to major stars in 22 constellations. When he included a 23rd constellation, he found that two of its stars matched already mapped locations, but a third star was unmatched. He predicted the potential location based on the other two, asked for existing satellite photography of the area, and found something that looked obviously man-made.
It’s been reported that this claim represents an 86-meter pyramid and up to 30 structures around it. Actual experts, however, are more than a little skeptical of claims that Gadoury located a major Maya city, instead identifying it as a cornfield, or milpa.
Stuart notes in separate comments that he’s glad to see Gadoury taking a commendable interest in Mesoamerican archaeology, but that some of the experts jumping on the bandwagon to drive attention to their own work really ought to have known better. When he calls this a Rorschach process, he’s referring to Rorschach inkblots, which don’t actually represent anything but can tell you something about the mindset of the person who looks at them.
There are potential issues with the claim that cities can be mapped cleanly to constellation maps. What we call the Maya civilization existed for thousands of years. Mesoamerica is one of the six identified “cradles” of civilization; the identifiable “Maya” empire stretches from 2000 BC to 1697 when the last Maya city-state fell to the Spanish. Just as the Roman Empire expanded, contracted, and ultimately transformed into the Byzantine Empire before falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Maya civilization went through profound transformations across thousands of years. Many sites were abandoned after the 1st century AD and new cities and complex relationships arose to replace them.
Human beings have built large-scale structures to mark cosmological events and observe the heavens for centuries, and the Maya were no exception. Past analysis has proven that Maya charts and codices on planetary movements were, in fact, far more advanced than what the Europeans knew at the time of first contact. There’s no evidence, however, that the Maya built entire cities based on their astronomical observations and plenty of reason to think they didn’t. Humans build monuments and temples to mark their observations of the stars; we build cities in areas where there are useful resources or opportunities for trade. To create an entire network of cities across hundreds of miles of challenging geography would be a monumental endeavor, particularly since the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica didn’t have domestic equivalents of the horse or cow.
Stories like this grab the human imagination precisely because every now and then, we do find an ancient city or vanished civilization — particularly in Mesoamerica and South America, where the jungle can hide the telltale signs of human habitation with amazing speed. Sites like Vilcabamba and Machu Picchu were both lost for centuries before being rediscovered. Most of the time, however, archaeologists find just another corn field — and until a team of on-site archaeologists can verify the existence of a massive pyramid and 30 stone structures, we’re going to side with the experts on this one.