Earlier this week, a number of news outlets brought us the “feel good story of the week” when they reported that a teenager from Quebec had used available satellite imagery and a bit of thinking out of the box to determine the location of a lost Mayan city. But, within a matter of a few days many experts have stepped up to dismiss the find.
Did he or didn’t he discover a Mayan city?
While most will rightfully applaud the efforts of 15-year-old William Godoury’s use of ingenuity, imagination, star charts and satellite images to reveal the presence of a “lost” Mayan city without ever having stepped foot in Central America, experts are lining up with words of congratulatory skepticism, one expert has been nothing short of wholly dismissive of the youngster’s efforts.
But we’ll get to that, first to the “discovery.” It’s been well-known for some time that most Mayan temples were individually built in a manner that aligned with heavenly bodies. Godoury, however, believed there was more to it and had the idea that the Mayans also built a complex of cities that aligned with constellations.
“I did not understand why the Maya built their cities away from rivers, on marginal lands and in the mountains,” William told Journal de Montreal. “They had to have another reason, and as they worshiped the stars, the idea came to me to verify my hypothesis. I was really surprised and excited when I realized that the most brilliant stars of the constellations matched the largest Maya cities.”
Godoury, essentially used “space archeology” to make his claim but others in the field say while impressive, it’s no replacement for field work. Charles Golden, an anthropologist who specializes in Mayan archaeology, was one of those experts.
“It’s an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence to back it up,” Dr. Golden told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “It requires a belief that over a period of hundreds of years, people across various areas communicated with one another, and there’s just no evidence to date that this is the case.”
“Even with the best of technologies, nothing replaces groundwork,” Golden says. “Archaeology can be very exciting, and the fact that it is science that needs to be tested like any other science can be lost.”
“Father of space archeology” claims “discovery” is nothing more than failings of modern education
While other experts also applauded Godoury’s approach, one was quite noticeably not feeling the love.
Anthony Aveni, an astronomer and anthropologist who is widely considered the “father of archaeoastronomy,” suggests that the Quebec kid’s premise is failed from the start and no more than a failed act of an overly active imagination.
“The idea of a map as we know it, as a scaled representation of geographic reality, is a modern Western concept,” says Aveni.
“It’s an interesting Western fantasy… we tend to look at these modern star maps and see things in the way we might see patterns in clouds,” he added.
After railing against this “western concept” Aveni finally took the time to give the teen a left-handed compliment.
“I think he’s a very bright young man and an independent thinker. I hope he gets a college scholarship for his work.” Aveni seemed to add as an afterthought when it must have struck him that he was being a bit of d**k.
Aveni was joined by Francisco Estrada-Belli, a specialist in Maya archaeology and remote sensing, in nearly immediately dismissing news of the teen’s discovery but didn’t fail to encourage the young man and cheer his thinking of the region from thousands of miles away from ground he studied.
“They don’t show anything that jumps out to me as pyramids; it could be a jungle clearance, it could be many things. What I see are polygonal shapes in the forest canopy,” says Belli.
“If [Gadoury] can have access to LiDAR images, he can pretty much rule out certain areas, as well as confirm the location of even small Maya sites,” Belli continued.
Belli seems to believe that if anything is found on the side that the teen discovered, well that’s just easy.
“I am a firm believer that there are hundreds of Maya sites still to be discovered, and they’re all over the place,” he says. “The chances of putting your finger on one point on the map of the region [and finding a Maya settlement] are very good.”
Not unlike Aveni, Belli seemed to realize he too was being a bit of a “cad” (for lack of a better word) and said, “I want to offer him an invitation to come to the jungle with me, and we can go find Maya sites together.”