The Application of Airborne Mapping LiDAR for the Documentation of Ancient Cities and Regions in Tropical Regions

Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Quaternary International

Publication Date



Elsevier Ltd



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It is a conundrum of the 21st Century that there is much left to discover and yet never before has our cultural and ecological patrimony been so threatened. This is especially true in tropical regions where heavy vegetation, inaccessibility, and rugged topography hamper investigation. Here we present two case studies that add to a growing body of literature demonstrating the utility of airborne mapping LiDAR (a.k.a. Airborne Laser Scanning) for rapid archaeological assessments in poorly documented regions. The first outlines a program of LiDAR scanning to better understand the urban center of Angamuco in the Mexican State of Michoacán. This work shows that (1) large urban centers with complex spatial organization were present centuries prior to the formation of the Purépecha Empire; (2) the settlement incorporates gardens and other landscape features within and around the settlement demonstrating a high degree of human environmental modification; and (3) current models for the evolution of social complexity in the region cannot account for the presence of Angamuco. The second presents the results of a LiDAR survey of a remote valley in the Mosquitia tropical wilderness of Honduras which has seen little archaeological research. Here we demonstrate that (1) though today the valley is a wilderness it was densely inhabited in the past; (2) this population was organized into a three-tiered system composed of 19 settlements dominated by a city; and (3) this occupation was embedded within a human engineered landscape. For both, LiDAR data fundamentally changed the understanding of coupled human/natural systems in these areas while providing critical baseline data for conservation and management.