On 10 May 2016, British outlet The Telegraph reported that a Canadian teenager found a lost Mayan city using satellite mapping:
A Canadian schoolboy appears to have discovered a lost Mayan city hidden deep in the jungles of Mexico using a new method of matching stars to the location of temples on earth.
William Gadoury, 15, was fascinated by the ancient Central American civilization and spent hours poring over diagrams of constellations and maps of known Mayan cities.
And then he made a startling realisation: the two appeared to be linked … William took to Google Maps and projected that there must be another city hidden deep in the thick jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico[.]
“I was really surprised and excited when I realised that the most brilliant stars of the constellations matched the largest Maya cities,” he told the Journal de Montréal.
In hundreds of years of scholarship, no other scientist had ever found such a correlation.
That final line gave many readers pause — if the story was accurate, experts studying such history for decades missed the findings of a teenager. The article did little to inspire confidence in the claim’s credibility, noting that the boy’s study focus was inspired by 2012 Mayan doomsday prophecies:
The Canadian Space Agency agreed to train its satellite telescopes on the spot and returned with striking pictures: what appears to be an ancient Mayan pyramid and dozens of smaller structures around it.
If the satellite photographs are verified, the city would be among the largest Mayan population centers ever discovered.
It fell to William to christen the new city and he chose the name K’aak Chi, meaning Fire Mouth, and the teenager said he hoped to one day see the ruins with his own eyes.
“It would be the culmination of my three years of work and the dream of my life,” he said. He became interested in the Mayans after reading about their predictions that the world would end in 2012.
The Telegraph sourced their report from a 7 May 2016 article on French-language web site Journal de Montréal. Both articles made essentially the same claims, with little effort at authenticating them. Both articles, too, lacked information about how such an astonishing discovery was deemed credible — or by whom. The narrative arc was vague and suggested that the boy requested further data from the Canadian Space Agency before connecting the dots himself.
Gawker‘s tech site Gizmodo was one of the first outlets to run with the story, only to later participate in its debunking. An assessment made by University of Southern California anthropologist Thomas Garrison was later added to Gizmodo‘s article in an update. Garrison said that the purported Maya ruins were, in fact, a fallow cornfield:
I applaud the young kid’s effort and it’s exciting to see such interest in the ancient Maya and remote sensing technology in such a young person. However, ground-truthing is the key to remote sensing research. You have to be able to confirm what you are identifying in a satellite image or other type of scene. In this case, the rectilinear nature of the feature and the secondary vegetation growing back within it are clear signs of a relic milpa. I’d guess its been fallow for 10-15 years. This is obvious to anyone that has spent any time at all in the Maya lowlands. I hope that this young scholar will consider his pursuits at the university level so that his next discovery (and there are plenty to be made) will be a meaningful one.
Ivan Šprajc of the Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies in Slovenia also voiced skepticism about the purported discovery:
Very few Maya constellations have been identified, and even in these cases we do not know how many and which stars exactly composed each constellation. It is thus impossible to check whether there is any correspondence between the stars and the location of Maya cities. In general, since we know of several environmental facts that influenced the location of Maya settlements, the idea correlating them with stars is utterly unlikely.
Other critiques voiced by archeologists in the wake of the claim’s spread on social media was that the area in which the site was “discovered” was already extensively mapped and excavated:
And no matter what your star map tells you, chances are good you’ll hit upon a settlement in that area. “The Maya area was so densely occupied in Classic Maya times that many years ago a well known archaeologist, Ed Kurjack, told me that the area looked much like the Ohio Valley, denuded of trees and full of towns that were fairly close to one another,” wrote Susan Milbrath, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in an email. “So at any given point you would be likely to find an archaeological site.” The archaeologist Richard Hansen pointed out that the location appears to be very close to that of the ancient Mayan city of Uxul, which has been under excavation since 2009—not exactly a long-lost city.
Ultimately, while the narrative of a plucky untrained teenager succeeding where the experts failed is always compelling, the “lost Mayan city” report was one of several science claims reported by the media only to be fact-checked by experts after the fact.
However, neither the way the story was reported initially nor its debunking were fully accurate. We spoke to the Daniel de Lisle with the Canadian Space Agency, who worked with William Gadoury on his project.
“We actually met William during the summer of 2014, because at that point [he] won a few science fairs with his project,” de Lisle told us:
So we attended his presentation and realized, this boy is really bright and really organized and had put together this project… and he was wondering why these temples, these pyramids were in odd places. So that’s how it started — he took the constellation maps and overlaid them over the map, and realized the constellations matched.
So that’s really what triggered all this work. He realized that one major star did not have a correlation with a city on the map so he said maybe there could be something under neath the vegetation. so that’s really the basis of his research. We invited him to CSA to make a presentation, and he made a really thorough presentation about this. They really were in awe with this 15 year old boy.
The other thing we did was provide satellite imagery where he was, and from there I processed the imagery so he could overlay this information…. The satellite imagery showed some edges that didn’t look natural; it showed straight edges. The images we have showed edges that are underneath the vegetation in relief. So he thought that there might be a city underneath the canopy.
William Gadoury’s projected uncovered what they called “an area of interest,” which suggested that there something underneath the vegetation. However, despite news reports to the contrary, the teenager never claimed to have found a lost city; instead, he formed a hypothesis based on available data that he had spent years researching and curating, so that experts could proceed from there.