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Almost three decades after Robert Bauval made headlines – and generated plenty of discussion and debate – with his controversial ‘Orion Correlation Theory‘ (the suggestion that pyramids in Egypt were sited in particular locations in order to resemble the stars in the constellation of Orion), a new story is hitting headlines around the world today claiming that a ‘lost’ Maya city has been located in the Americas, through the matching of star locations to the placement of ancient cities.

What makes the story even more incredible is that the discoverer is a 15-year-old school student! William Gadoury from Quebec was perplexed as to “why the Maya built their cities away from rivers, on marginal lands and in the mountains”, and “as they worshipped the stars” wondered if they might have chosen the location of its towns and cities to mirror the imagery of the sky.

He found Mayan cities lined up exactly with stars in the civilization’s major constellations. Studying the star map further, he discovered one city was missing from a constellation of three stars.

Using satellite images provided by the Canadian Space Agency and then mapped on to Google Earth, he discovered the city where the third star of the constellation suggested it would be.

The similarities to Bauval’s work don’t end there. According to a French-language Wikipedia page the constellation that Gadoury identified with the star that had no corresponding city was the Maya version of Orion. “Three of the stars of this constellation form a triangle, are: Alnitak ( Zeta Orionis ), Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Saiph ( saiph )”, it notes, with two of those corresponding to the ancient Mayan cities of Calakmul and El Mirador. But the third star did not correspond to any known Maya site, leading him to assume that – if his city/correlation theory was correct – there would be a ‘lost’ city hiding in that position. And, using high-resolution satellite imagery, courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, Gadoury claims to have found exactly that.

Others with more substantial credentials have agreed:

Doctor Armand La Rocque, from the University of New Brunswick, said one image showed a street network and a large square which could possibly be a pyramid. He told The Independent: “A square is not natural, it is mostly artificial and can hardly be attributed to natural phenomena. “If we add these together, we have a lot of indication there might be a Mayan city in the area.”.

Sounds exciting as hell, and if true is a stunning discovery about the importance of the night sky to ancient people. But let’s also stop and breathe a little. The ‘discovery’ is currently based on seemingly geometric figures spotted on a satellite photograph – nobody has actually visited the area yet to confirm there is actually a lost city there. Furthermore, even if ancient ruins are discovered where Gadoury claims they should be, does it confirm the constellation correlation theory, or is it just a matter of there being so many sites in the Americas that you can ‘join the dots’ any way you like? (Though personally, that seems a bridge too far given the amount of corresponding sites he has claimed to have found already.)

What seems a little odd is that this isn’t actually a new story – Gadoury first got media attention for his theory spoke to Daniel De Lisle of the Canadian Space Agency, who noted that the CSA first came into contact with Gadoury won [a science] exposition, and one of the prizes was for him to present his project at this international conference…his booth was right beside ours; we just chit-chatted with him, and realized there was a high potential for him to make an interesting discovery, and we decided to support him”:

William did a first project trying to make a correlation between the locations of the stars with the different constellations, and tried to understand how they could identify the various cities – and he made an almost 90% correlation between the fact that the stars locations could pinpoint the cities.

And one of the studies he did, he found a constellation that had no specific location on the ground. So what the space agency did was provide him with a few images over the area of interest…so he could see with the high-resolution imagery that we provided him with to try and locate this hidden or unknown city.

It could be that archaeologists just haven’t treated the claim as a genuine one in the intervening time – given both the ‘fringe’ nature of the theory, and that it is coming from a teenager. But the coverage being given to the story now should guarantee that it gets more serious investigation.

The next logical step would seem to be to get out there and see if those geometric figures truly are a lost city. If it is…game on!

Update: Gizmodo have posted an article on this same topic, and in recent updates have included skeptical comments by archaeologists and anthropologists. One of those is Mesoamerican expert David Stuart, who in a Facebook post labeled the lost city claim as “false”:

The whole thing is a mess — a terrible example of junk science hitting the internet in free-fall. The ancient Maya didn’t plot their ancient cities according to constellations. Seeing such patterns is a rorschach process, since sites are everywhere, and so are stars. The square feature that was found on Google Earth is indeed man-made, but it’s an old fallow cornfield, or milpa.