Airborne LiDAR, archaeology, and the ancient Maya landscape at Caracol, Belize

Arlen F. Chase, Diane Z. Chase, John F. Weishampel, Jason B. Drake, Ramesh L. Shrestha, K. Clint Slatton, Jaime J. Awe, William E. Carter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

354 Scopus citations


Advances in remote sensing and space-based imaging have led to an increased understanding of past settlements and landscape use, but - until now - the images in tropical regions have not been detailed enough to provide datasets that permitted the computation of digital elevation models for heavily forested and hilly terrain. The application of airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) remote sensing provides a detailed raster image that mimics a 3-D view (technically, it is 2.5-D) of a 200 sq km area covering the settlement of Caracol, a long-term occupied (600 BC-A.D. 250-900) Maya archaeological site in Belize, literally " seeing" though gaps in the rainforest canopy. Penetrating the encompassing jungle, LiDAR-derived images accurately portray not only the topography of the landscape, but also, structures, causeways, and agricultural terraces - even those with relatively low relief of 5-30 cm. These data demonstrate the ability of the ancient Maya to modify, radically, their landscape in order to create a sustainable urban environment. Given the time and intensive effort involved in producing traditional large-scale maps, swath mapping LiDAR is a powerful cost-efficient tool to analyze past settlement and landscape modifications in tropical regions as it covers large study areas in a relatively short time. The use of LiDAR technology, as illustrated here, will ultimately replace traditional settlement mapping in tropical rainforest environments, such as the Maya region, although ground verification will continue to be necessary to test its efficacy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)387-398
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Belize
  • Landscape archaeology
  • LiDAR
  • Maya
  • Rainforest canopy
  • Tropics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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