This Maya Civilization Created the World’s First Highway System Over 2000 Years Ago

Lead Photo: Pirámide de La Danta, El Mirador, Guatemala
Pirámide de La Danta, El Mirador, Guatemala
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Few doubt the importance of Mesoamerican cultures in the grand arc of human civilization, but thanks to cutting-edge technologies, we’re only now beginning to grasp how incredibly advanced these societies truly were. Just last week, a group of archeologists lead by American Richard D. Hansen announced the results of a two year study that employed a high-precision radar surveying method called Lidar that led them to a groundbreaking conclusion: the Maya civilization of El Mirador in Guatemala’s Petén developed the world’s first superhighway system well before its collapse in 150 BC.

Sure, Europe’s colonial legacy probably has you thinking back to the heady days of the Roman Republic, but for all of Rome’s glorious history, they didn’t have a complex, 150 mile-long system of 17 highways to transport goods across a cohesive political unit with a population totaling over one million. Indeed, El Mirador’s political cohesion spread over more than 1,300 square miles, leading Hansen to declare it “the first state in the Americas.”

Radar image of El Mirador / Photo: Proyecto Arqueológico Cuenca Mirador via EFE
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Nevertheless, El Mirador has consistently been overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor, Tikal, which at present is the largest excavated archeological site in Latin America. For it’s part, El Mirador site is covered by dense jungle vegetation and only accessible by foot or mule, though Hansen insists that the area contains undiscovered cities that would dwarf Tikal in their scale. The group’s research also suggests that El Mirador contained a system of large pens that may represent the world’s first industrial meat production operation carried out on a national level, though such hypothesis are yet to be proven.

Located on the border between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Campeche, El Mirador currently receives approximately 3,000 tourists annually who brave unwelcoming jungle conditions to catch sight of a fraction of the region’s ancient splendor. Moving forward, Hansen recommends that the governments of Guatemala and Mexico collaborate on a tourism development plan that respects the surrounding ecosystem while keeping the entirety of the cultural enclave in tact. Some estimates have placed the cost of such a project at up to $100 million.