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Researchers shot lasers into the jungle — then discovered an ancient Mayan highway

A small drone buzzed over the jungles and farms of southern Mexico, firing laser beams into the foliage and fields below.

When the beams reached the ground, they bounced back, providing a measurement of distance between the drone and the surface.

After repeating this process — known as Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR — over two dozen acres in the Yucatan Peninsula, researchers used the data to create a three-dimensional map.

The topographic map revealed a long line cutting through the fields and forests. It turned out to be an ancient Mayan highway, known as a sacbé, according to a Dec. 1 news release from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

The sacbé, which means white road in Mayan, is about 16 feet wide and stretches across 11 miles of the Yucatan.

Dating to around 700 A.D., the causeway linked the ancient cities of Kabah and Uxmal for several hundred years, officials said.

The centuries-old road had long been the subject of legend, which was kept alive by the descendants of the Mayans. This knowledge was passed along to a priest in the 19th century, who recorded the existence of numerous Mayan ruins.

“Many of these stories survive today and mix with tales and legends of improbably long causeways that connect distant cities, sometimes running underground and hidden to modern knowledge,” according to 2019 research from the University of California Riverside.

To date, numerous sacbés — which are paved with stone — have been found in southern Mexico, including one that zags across more than 60 miles, according to the study.

The recently discovered causeway will be rehabilitated in order to help local communities reconnect with their heritage, officials said.

Google Translate was used to translate a news release from INAH.

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