Ruins of a building in the ancient city featuring a staircase (Credit: Ivan Šprajc/ National Institute of Anthropology and History/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Dr. Ivan Šprajc has spent the past 30 years looking for Maya cities in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. In 2013, the archeologist and his team found one dating back to the 8th century in the Chactún rainforest. A year later, they unearthed two more cities abandoned over 1,200 years ago. But a massive ancient settlement found deep inside Mexico's Balamkú Ecological Conservation Zone, is the team's most exciting discovery yet.

The hidden gem, revealed in June 2023, was first spotted by Dr. Juan Carlos Fernandez using airborne light detection and ranging (LIDAR). The technology helps detect structures hidden inside dense forests. The researcher alerted Dr. Šprajc, and in late June 2023, the archeologist and his team made the difficult 37-mile (60-km) journey through the thick jungle. The effort was well worth it! Measuring over five million square feet (464,515 m²), it is the biggest Maya city unearthed to date. The scientists believe it may have served as a political hub for the peninsula's central lowland region sometime between 250 and 1000 AD.

A light detection and ranging LIDAR scan of the site (Credit: National Institute of Anthropology and History/ CC-BY-SA.2.0)

"We knew there was something quite important there, but we couldn't imagine what, exactly, we'd find," Šprajc said. "When we got there, our suspicions were confirmed: architecturally, it was truly massive. So, it's clear this must have been a politically important center."

The ruins included numerous pyramid-shaped structures as high as 49 feet (15 meters) tall. There were also several cylinder-shaped stone columns. The researchers, who named the city Ocumtún, (meaning "stone column" in Maya), believe they served as entrances to the buildings. The ancient city also featured some elongated structures arranged in a concentric circle and a ballgame court. The ancient game was played by passing a rubber ball across the court and into a stone hoop without the use of hands. It is believed to have had religious significance.

The city was named after the giant stone columns found amid the ruins (Credit: National Institute of Anthropology and History/ CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The Maya ruled over much of Central America between 200 and 1000 AD. They were best known for building towering pyramid-like temples and grand stone cities. But the ancient people were also brilliant astronomers and mathematicians. They developed a calendar and learned how to follow the stars so that they would know when to farm.

However, in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Maya began to leave the majestic cities they had built. By 1,000 AD, almost all settlements had been abandoned. Archeologists are not sure of the reason for the mass exodus. They speculate it may be due to warfare or prolonged droughts. The discovery of Ocumtún may provide some answers.

"This is a very exciting discovery, to say the least!" said Dr. M. Kathryn Brown, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The researcher, who was not part of the study, believes it will help "shed light on important questions related to the rise and fall of the ancient Maya, as well as their daily life."