For more than a generation, scientists and archaeologists have been digging into mysterious sites to explore the cultures and architectures of the ancient world and debunk secrets of the early civilizations, like the Maya. Today with the help of high technology, the mission is much more fascinating, and the discoveries are all-encompassing. The Lost World of the Maya by National Geographic is one of the rare documentaries where each scene is a revelation. 

While archaeologists are trying to solve the puzzle of this captivating mesoamerican civilization that still holds too many mysteries to this day, the narration teaches us new insights about the cults, practices, and societies of a hidden Mayan city in northern Guatemala.

Youtube for Architects: Lost World of the Maya by National Geographic - Sheet1
In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya_ © National Geographic

About The Documentary

It is a documentary of about 44 minutes, directed by Jeremy Zipple and broadcast by National Geographic channels from the series of Mystery in 2019. A team of archaeologists succeeds in uncovering an ancient urban centre buried underneath the jungle and lost in time thanks to new technology

The studies in laboratories reveal the origin of the findings and put hypotheses about the socio-economic structures of the Mayan people that have inhabited this area.

Youtube for Architects: Lost World of the Maya by National Geographic - Sheet3
In Guatemala’s Tikal, only the peaks of monuments rise above the forest. But Lidar scans reveal a complex landscape beneath the foliage._ © (Top, Matthias Kestel/Shutterstock; bottom, Francisco Estrada-Belli/PACUNAM)

Technology Bringing The Lost Past To Life 

The great drone scenes of the vast canopy followed with the satellite’s captions stripping away the lush green to reveal treasures of this ancient civilization with the aid of the LiDAR technology were a great introduction to put the viewer into the context of the Mayan world before digging into its hidden secrets. This LiDAR or Light Detection and Ranging technology uses laser lights to remotely examine ranges of the earth, which helps archaeologists better visualize the studies sites, gather clear and extremely detailed 3D landscape images, and provide us more information than ever about the hidden structures of the ancient world.

Youtube for Architects: Lost World of the Maya by National Geographic - Sheet2
Mayan ancient structures ruins brought to life with the aid of satellites and a laser scanning technology called LiDAR_ © National Geographic

The Mayan Universe Between Genius, Culture, and Myths

In the beginning, the narration will introduce the origins and aspects of the Mayan societies, showing how archeologists spotted ancient buildings, sprawling suburbs, and buried remnants and structures emerging from the massive jungle, and relating to the vanished Maya civilization. And while they are using many tools to map settlement patterns and uncover the lifestyle adopted by people of this era, you will be learning important lessons about how they managed the diversity of their cultures and social structures and how power, unlike what is known, was shared with citizens which helped to establish wealthy lives and build such great metropolis that keeps amazing us till today. 

In the mid-episode, archaeologist Stephane Simms discovers a superb over-the-top real estate called the stairway to heaven and reveals another narrative of what has been assumed as America’s very first middle class. While the last part of the documentary discloses the conflict of ideologies and political tensions, pointing to few explanations of the stoppage of these well-organized societies and the sudden abandonment of the site.

The Mayan Survival and Collapse, an Ancient Lesson for Contemporary issues

Certainly, there is no evidence about the hypotheses and the myths raised about how the Mayan people could resist all the revealed and mysterious obstacles before their collapse. But archaeologists have already unlocked many secrets of the ancient man-made infrastructures that were surprisingly complex and efficient that might inspire today’s architects and urban planners to solve contemporary issues and adapt to our environment. 

The question raised from the beginning of the segment, and incentivized us to stick till the end of the documentary to get an answer, is what happened to a whole civilization that has clearly mastered engineering and managed wealth and power? What could the collapse of the Mayan teach us today? 

Lost world of Maya_ © National Geographic

Learning from early civilizations

Ancient civilizations are one of the most important topics to be taught to children and students in every field, and architecture is no exception. In addition to understanding the buildings structures and analyzing the aspects and the genie of urban centres and ancient cities, relating to economic and socio-political structures of the ancient world would provide us, architects, designers, and urban planners, an insight into the evolution of humanities and the unfolding of history, and discerning the complex organization of the early societies like the Maya, can help us inform our decisions and build a better world for our times. 

New technologies such as LiDAR could provide us with an incentive to gain more knowledge about our ancestors and hence contemplate the lessons of the still-unrevealed past.


Jarus, O., 2021. The Maya: History, Culture & Religion. [online] Available at: <>

History. 2021. This Ancient Civilization Was Twice As Big As Medieval England. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 July 2021].

Lost World of the Maya (Full Episode) | National Geographic. [Documentary Film]. Available at: <>


Oumaima is an architect and a spatial planning student passionate about arts, cultures and everything in between. She is a constant learner and a striver for continual growth, who spends most of her time, gathering inspirations, writing rad thoughts, exploring stories throughout architecture and putting colorful poems on paper & canvas.