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Did a teen discover a lost Mayan city? Not exactly.

The Washington Post The Washington Post 11/05/2016 Rachel Feltman
© Canadian Space Agency

It’s no fun when a feel-good story has to get debunked, especially when it’s a story about a smart, science-loving kid. But, unfortunately, it seems obvious that reports of a Quebec teen “discovering” a lost Mayan city have been overblown.

William Gadoury, a 15-year-old from Saint-Jean-de-Matha, hypothesized that Mayans might have built their cities so they lined up with major constellations. In investigating his theory, he found that lots of cities seemed to line up with bright stars, but one major constellation seemed to be missing a settlement. When Gadoury got the Canadian Space Agency to turn a satellite over to that remote area, he spotted what seem to be man-made structures.

Gadoury’s enthusiasm is wonderful, and he did a neat experiment. But how much can we conclude from his informal findings? Not much. There’s a reason we didn’t cover this story when it started going viral Tuesday: Without a formal, peer-reviewed study of the stars-and-cities hypothesis (and even with one), it’s a bit reckless to run with the conclusion that it has been proven. And now many experts have chimed in to express skepticism.

For starters, the idea that matching up constellations to cities proves Mayan intent might be misguided.

“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,” Susan Milbrath, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told Wired. “So at any given point you would be likely to find an archaeological site.”

In other words, the apparent correlation between constellations and cities might be random. Wired’s Sarah Zhang also points out that we don't know which stars the Mayans clustered together into constellations (not every civilization has looked up and seen spoons of varying size), which makes a relationship between modern star charts and Mayan city planning even more dubious.

But what about that weird square-ish structure? The one that a remote sensing specialist and a Canadian Space Agency scientist both told the media were likely man-made?

Well, it’s probably something man-made. Like a recently abandoned field.

“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,” Thomas Garrison, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California-Dornsife and an expert in remote sensing, told Gizmodo. “I’d guess it’s been fallow for 10 to 15 years. This is obvious to anyone that has spent any time at all in the Maya lowlands.”

In fact, in an email statement sent to The Washington Post, University of California at San Diego archaeologist Geoffrey E. Braswell said he was familiar with the sites in question, having visited them for research with his colleagues:

“One image shows two rectangular features on the southeast edge of a dried seasonal lagoon.  This is the Laguna El Civalón in southeast Campeche, Mexico, located at 17o 56’ 42” N by 90o 10’ 0” N.  The two rectangular features identified as pyramids are small fields filled with weeds. The fields may be fallow or may be active marijuana fields, which are common in the area. There is no important archaeological site there.

The second image shows a small seasonally dried patch of swamp about 500m north of the Laguna El Manguito, also known as San Felipe.  The image is of 17o 53’ 44” N by 90o 6’ 35” W.  There are no ancient pyramids, but there is a very interesting colonial archaeological site nearby.  San Felipe was an important stop on the Spanish camino real linking Campeche (Mexico) to Lake Petén Itzá (Guatemala).  Mexican archaeologist Teri Arias Ortiz has worked at San Felipe, and has identified several structures including what may be a very early church.”

Braswell praised Gadoury’s curiosity and said he hopes to see the young man apply to USC-San Diego.

Despite the updates from Gizmodo and the thorough debunking from Wired, breathless versions of this “science” story are still popping up all over the Web — which stinks. Citizen science is great, and it’s even more exciting when a teen does it. When folks don’t have the academic background to understand the standard school of thought on a subject — or understand why it has become the general consensus — they’re more likely to come up with novel and cool ideas. And maybe there’s some nugget of something in Gadoury’s research that will go somewhere. But that doesn’t mean we’re doing him — or the researchers who have devoted their lives to studying this stuff — any favors by letting this story run wild.

This post has been updated.

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