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Ancient City the Size of Manhattan Uncovered in Mexico

Ancient City the Size of Manhattan Uncovered in Mexico

Using LiDAR, archeologists exploring a recently discovered ancient city in western Mexico discovered that it may have had as many buildings as Manhattan.

In 2007, archeologists and researchers discovered the lost city of Angamuco in western Mexico. The discovery helped to give us a closer look at the Purépecha culture, which flourished long before the Spanish came to the New World and rivaled the Aztecs in many ways. It was a major discovery at the time, but a recent scan using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology confirms that the discovery was much, much bigger than we thought.

The city of Angamuco is located on a lava field just a short drive from the city of Morelia, Mexico. The previously been discovered ruins and those that were subsequently excavated hinted at a thriving metropolis that occupied around 13 square kilometers, but the recent scan using LiDAR, however, shows that the city was much bigger than anyone imaged. Scans revealed ruins spanning over 26 square kilometers and containing nearly 40,000 buildings – about the same number as exist in modern-day Manhattan.

The complete findings will be presented by Colorado State archeologist Chris Fisher, and they paint the picture of a complex city, complete with pyramids, temples, gardens for growing food, and road system connecting it all. There are even traces of ball courts.

“That is a huge area with a lot of people and a lot of architectural foundations that are represented,” Fisher told The Guardian. “If you do the maths, all of a sudden you are talking about 40,000 building foundations up there, which is [about] the same number of building foundations that are on the island of Manhattan.”

While the Purépecha are nowhere as popular or well-known as their rivals the Aztecs, their culture flourished for hundreds of years. Their imperial capital called Tzintzuntzan can be found on the edge of Lake Pátzcuaro, an area that descendants of the Purépecha still inhabit, but the city of Angamuco is roughly twice the size of the capital.

During the city’s height, between 1000AD and 1350AD, as many as 100,000 people are believed to have lived in and around the city, making it the largest city in western Mexico during that time period.

Ancient City the Size of Manhattan Uncovered in Mexico

Image from Chris Fisher

So far, more than 7,000 architectural features have been discovered over a relatively small 4 square kilometer area of the city, but what has been discovered, along with the LiDAR scan, show a rather unusual city. Pyramids and temples can be found on the edges of the city rather than in the center, and there also appear to have been two waves of development over the centuries prior to its eventual collapse.

It’s unknown what caused the city to fall, but it may have been a combination of several factors. The Purépecha did frequently fight with the Aztecs, but were never conquered thanks to their access to metal ores and superior metalsmithing. Despite their rivalry, the two cultures frequently traded and mingled, and the Purépecha continued after the city of Angamuco apparently fell.

The Purépecha also survived the plagues that ravaged North and Central Americas and the initial first contact with the Spanish. Following the fall of the Aztecs at the hands of the conquistadors, the Purépecha ruler Tangaxuan II pledged his allegiance to the Spanish in 1525. But in 1529 or 1530, the conquistadors plundered the region where the Purépecha lived and executed Tangaxun II, ending the Purépecha state.

While the uncovering of Angamuco is significant and will likely cause historians to rethink some of their long-held beliefs about the region, there will likely be more major discoveries in the near future, thanks to LiDAR. The technology has already helped to uncover several lost settlements and cities – including a recent discovery in Guatemala earlier this year – and more may come soon. The initial excavation of Angamuco took several years and revealed just a fraction of the city, while the LiDAR scan took about an hour and radically changed what we know about the city in an afternoon.

Everywhere you point the [LiDAR] instrument you find new stuff, and that is because we know so little about the archaeological universe in the Americas right now,” Fisher said. “Right now every textbook has to be rewritten, and two years from now [they’re] going to have to be rewritten again.”



Founder and DBP boss. Ryan likes the Kansas Jayhawks, long walks on the beach, and high fiving unsuspecting people.