The Design and Fall of Civilizations

The technology uncovering humanity's past -- and perhaps its future.

Archaeologists discovered the Maya city of Caracol, hidden in the jungles of Belize, in the 1930s. In the 1980s, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen and Diane Chase began the daunting project of mapping Caracol and its environs. With teams of assistants and students, they tramped through the rain forest, recording and measuring every archaeological feature they could find. By 2009, after 25 years of labor, they had some of the most detailed maps ever made of a Maya city.

Then they tried a new mapping tool: "light detection and ranging" technology, or lidar. Although lidar had been used for years to survey large-scale features for projects such as urban planning and planetary exploration, only recently had it gained the resolution necessary for archaeological mapping. The Chases joined forces with NASA and the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping at the University of Houston, which supplied a plane retrofitted to carry a million-dollar lidar machine that flew five missions over Caracol and its environs, mapping the ground with lasers.

When the images came back, the Chases were stunned. The lidar maps showed that in the quarter-century they had spent roaming the rain-forest floor, they had found only about 10 percent of what was actually there. The new maps revealed tens of thousands of previously unknown features, large and small-structures, houses, roads, reservoirs, terracing, sinkholes, caves (some with burials and artifacts), and even open and looted tombs. In a little more than nine hours, the lidar mission had revealed that Caracol was a far larger area than previously imagined, an urban landscape covering 200 square kilometers.

The Chases declared lidar the greatest archaeological advance since carbon-14 dating, which won its discoverer a Nobel Prize and transformed the science of archaeology. It's true that archaeology is on the verge of another revolution because of lidar. The technology will soon strip away the world's jungles to reveal their lost civilizations and hidden treasures, a prospect recently demonstrated in dramatic fashion by Bill Benenson and Steve Elkins.

A few years ago, the two filmmakers had the crazy idea of mapping a large swath of unknown rain forest in the rugged interior mountains of Mosquitia, a region in Honduras. These mountains have the distinction of being among the last archaeologically unexplored regions on Earth, cut off by dense jungles, malarial swamps, roaring torrents, steep ravines, deadly snakes, and the even more formidable Honduran bureaucracy.

Benenson and Elkins were looking for a legendary lost city, known as La Ciudad Blanca (the White City), long rumored to be hidden in the area. They persuaded the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping to undertake the speculative project, the first to use lidar for pure exploration. (Previously, it had only been used to survey known sites.) And in May 2012, they spent a number of days flying over the Mosquitia mountains, logging a little more than eight hours of actual mapping time.

I accompanied Benenson, Elkins, and their team to Honduras as a journalist -- a trip I later wrote about for the New Yorker -- even though I believed their chances of finding something were small. Nothing much happened in the first few days, as the plane gathered raw data. But on the morning of the fourth day, the chief mapping engineer had crunched enough data to create maps of an isolated valley in the targeted area. Previously a skeptic, he burst out of his bungalow, running like a madman, waving his arms and yelling, "There's something in the valley!"

When we crowded into his room, we could see that the maps were covered with blurry, unnatural features that even to our inexpert eyes looked like ruins. Later analysis by archaeologists specializing in Mesoamerica revealed two, possibly three, unknown cities in those images, encompassing pyramids, plazas, roads, canals, terracing, rectangular mounds, and walls. This wasn't just a solitary city; it was a society. The prehistoric inhabitants of the Mosquitia rain forest -- they do not have a name yet -- had cleared the vegetation to create open areas, monumental architecture, roads, canals, dense housing settlements, and intensive agriculture. In a few hours, lidar had mapped an area that would have taken perhaps a century or more to survey using traditional methods, and in far greater detail.

Lidar doesn't just do faster and better what traditional archaeology can. By mapping hundreds of square kilometers in one fell swoop -- impossible in a ground survey -- it reveals how ancient civilizations organized themselves on the largest scales, how the hinterlands were connected to the cities, how the cities were connected to each other, and how people farmed, traded, and engaged in religious activity. All without turning over a spade of earth.

The use of lidar as an archaeological tool comes at a crucial time for the field. Over the past two decades, archaeologists have realized that most of their ideas about prehistoric settlement in the rain forests of the Americas were wrong. These jungles are not virgin: Prior to European contact, they were heavily cleared and the terrain extensively altered. Nor were these areas populated with scattered hunter-gatherer tribes, as we see today, but with advanced, sophisticated farming civilizations. The old idea that rain-forest soils are nutrient-poor and unable to support large-scale farming is now known to be false.

Given that, outside of Caracol and Mosquitia, the rain forests of Central and South America are untouched by lidar, I would expect surprising, if not mind-blowing, discoveries as other archaeologists begin their own swoops over the jungle canopy.

And this won't just happen in the Americas. The very first archaeological use of lidar in the Asian tropics led to the discovery of an ancient Khmer city hidden in the Cambodian jungle and revealed canals, roads, dikes, a score of unknown temples, a cave full of ancient carvings, and hundreds of mysterious mounds that may be ancient tombs. Not long ago, I met a young anthropologist at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who mentioned that she had started using lidar to map Penobscot Indian sites in Maine. I asked her what she thought of it as a tool. "Oh my God," she said, "lidar is crack."

Why does this all matter to the rest of us? Understanding how ancient civilizations organized themselves and why they collapsed is crucial to understanding many of the challenges we face today. The inhabitants of Mosquitia experienced a decline around the 13th century, a few hundred years after their more famous neighbor -- the Maya -- utterly collapsed, never to rise again. Long a mystery, the Maya collapse now appears to have been caused by environmental degradation and the growth of a wealthy class that hogged an ever-larger share of a dwindling pool of resources. Does this sound familiar? The story of archaeology is thick with cautionary tales that speak directly to the 21st century: from the demise of the Roman Empire (corruption, tax evasion, and military overspending) to the 12th-century fall of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest (clear-cutting, overfarming, and overreaching by the priestly class).

Civilizations change; problems endure. Our foreign-policy establishment would do well to heed the sometimes chilling lessons of the ancients.

Images courtesy of UTL Scientific



Pope Francis brings the freshness of the Gospel to the Catholic Church.

For all those assessing the meaning of Pope Francis's rise and its implications for one of the world's most powerful transnational institutions, the pontiff has already offered a warning. "If one has the answers to all the questions," he said in an August interview with La Civiltà Cattolica that has become a kind of manifesto for his papacy, "that is the proof that God is not with him."

That delightful rebuke to know-it-alls everywhere provides a clue as to how someone who has held the papal office only since March has already revolutionized -- there is no other word -- the world's view of the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when religion has come to seem synonymous with dogmatic certainty and, in the eyes of many secular observers, fundamentalism, here is arguably the most visible religious leader in the world asserting that questions, not answers, can inspire a vibrant faith.

Francis is orthodox, all right. He has reasserted the church's "clear" teaching on abortion and said he could not do otherwise. "I am a son of the church," he explained. But he is an orthodox searcher who wants to share the journey with anyone of goodwill (including nonbelievers) who takes the quest for truth seriously. "Who am I to judge?" he replied when asked his view of those who are gay. For so many, judging is what a pope does for a living. Francis did not change church doctrine with his statement. He merely changed virtually everything about how we see the role of a supreme pontiff.

A few things are already obvious. As the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years and the first from the global south, Francis speaks in decidedly different accents about capitalism and globalization. It should not be forgotten that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were highly critical of unbridled capitalism. But they still discussed the market in terms largely set by the debates in Europe and the United States. The economic and political visions of the pope from Poland and the pope from Germany could not help but be shaped by their reactions to the bitter experience of Soviet communism. So their strong calls for social justice were always tempered by warnings against the politics of class struggle.

Francis is necessarily more radical in his preaching about the poor and the shortcomings of global capitalism because he addresses the rest of the world from the perspective of the south and from the experience of those suffering from deep poverty.

Thus has Francis declared: "While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling." Thus has he condemned "an economic system which has at its center an idol called money" and "the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal." Thus has he linked his words with a series of actions eschewing a regal style of living to underscore his commitment to building "a poor church for the poor."

A pope who sees lifting up the poor and moralizing an unjust economy as primary objectives inevitably views the culture wars that so engage Catholic conservatives, particularly in the United States, as a peculiar rock on which to build the church's public ministry. This view has brought him criticism from the Catholic right, as he has acknowledged. But putting the culture wars in their place is consistent with a papacy that finds its inspiration outside the ongoing arguments among liberals and traditionalists in the developed world.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he said in one of the most widely cited parts of his interview, as published in English in the Jesuit magazine America. "I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.… The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.

"The church's pastoral ministry," he went on, "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.… We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel." Francis seems to want to move his church outward, from the nave of a dark cathedral to the bright garden outside its doors.

Again, the pope is not changing church doctrine. But a major change in emphasis itself has profound implications.

Equally profound was his choice to canonize Pope John XXIII, the reformist pope of the Second Vatican Council, alongside Pope John Paul II. It was the unifying act of a superb politician, and it sent a powerful message. It applied to the church itself one of his dicta: "The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful."

Rapid sainthood for John Paul II was inevitable, given the widespread devotion to him in many corners of the church, not simply in its conservative wing. But by lifting up John XXIII as well, Francis is telling Catholics to gladly accept his legacy -- and the legacy of the council's embrace of democracy, religious freedom, and the centrality of the Catholic laity. If some conservative voices in the church have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world, Francis is welcoming its dialectical mission: that modernity has lessons to teach Catholics, even as the church should be critical of modernity's failings.

Much is expected of this pope: serious reform of the Vatican, a substantial decentralization of authority, a definitive reckoning with the pedophilia scandal, and, among Western Catholics especially, a broadening of the "opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church," as Francis himself has put it.

In global terms, however, here may be the central paradox of his papacy: As the leader of a church that has so long been viewed as dogmatic, hierarchical, and traditional, Francis bids to turn himself into a model of a kind of mystical humility that combines a spirit of moderation with intellectual openness and a radical understanding of what the primacy of the spiritual over the material means. Benedict issued a stern warning against a "dictatorship of relativism." Francis seems worried about something else entirely.

"If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing," he has said. "Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­ -- they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person's life."

Thus is his one "dogmatic certainty" -- a thoroughly undogmatic universalism more interested in shattering barriers than erecting them. It's a very new approach to religion in the modern world, rooted in the oldest of doctrines.

Image: Illustration by Jimmy Turrell