Ocomtun: A long-lost Maya city that was just discovered

Why Ocomtun matters

The rediscovery of any new lost Maya city holds valuable clues about how the Maya people lived and what caused the civilization’s sudden downfall some 1,200 years ago – and this is especially true in an area as little-explored as the central Yucatán Peninsula.

The Balamkú Ecological Conservation Zone is a virtually impenetrable snarl of vines that’s one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. It’s home to 86 species of mammals but virtually no roads, so Šprajc and his team used Lidar – an airborne laser scanning technology that has been transforming how archaeologists conduct research in jungles and uncovering the ancient Maya world – to map the area. After receiving Lidar images showing man-made changes to the landscape, they thrashed their way 60km through a riot of vegetation to reach the site.

“We knew there was something quite important there, but we couldn’t imagine what, exactly, we’d find,” Šprajc said. “When we got there, our suspicions were confirmed: architecturally, it was truly massive. So, it’s clear this must have been a politically important centre.”

Surrounded by extensive wetlands, the city was built on high ground and was composed of a “monumental nucleus” covering more than 50 hectares. In addition to pyramids and stone columns, the team founded altars, three plazas dominated by crumbling buildings and a court for the Maya’s ancient ball game. A sprawling 80m acropolis marks the city’s north-western corner and is topped by another pyramid rising 25m above the natural terrain. A short walk south, there are two more pyramids standing 15m tall.