‘Ottawa’ Quebec Teen, Backed by Canadian Space Agency, Thinks he Found Lost Maya City. Scholar Not so Sure
A Quebec teen became an international media sensation this week after his science fair project led to claims that he may have uncovered a Maya ruin hidden in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
The boy’s theory promises to have unlocked a secret of the ancient civilization, though scholars suggest he may have just got lucky, if he found anything at all.
At a 2014 Quebec science fair, William Gadoury, now 15, unveiled his unusual theory that Maya cities may have been arranged to mirror constellations. Using a set of 22 constellations and 117 known settlements, Gadoury found certain cities corresponded with stars in a given constellation, making an almost identical shape on the map. So he could draw a line connecting five cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, to form the W-shape of Cassiopeia constellation.
The theory earned Gadoury a prize at the science fair, and a trip to an international symposium in Quebec City, where his booth was beside the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) booth. Gadoury talked with Daniel De Lisle, a CSA project officer, about something that was puzzling him. One of the constellations he looked at, the triangle in the Orion constellation, was missing a corresponding city on the map, Gadoury said.
So the space agency offered to look into it, and requested NASA and Japanese satellite images of the area where that missing point should have been, according to the theory. In analyzing the area, researchers found formations they believe to be human-made structures.
“These aren’t natural structures,” De Lisle said, adding he’s 70 per cent sure the images show a forgotten Maya civilization. But an archeologist said it would take exploration on the ground to know with any certainty.
After news reports heralded the boy’s apparent discovery, the 15 year old was inundated with interview requests at his home in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, an hour north of Montreal.
“It’s hard,” Gadoury told the Post on Tuesday. “I never thought it would go like that.”
Now, the boy is intent on getting to the site with a team of archeologists to investigate — an endeavour that could cost millions of dollars.
“That’s my dream.”
Gadoury started looking into the Maya, and “how they were geniuses,” in 2012 around the time when some used the Maya calendar to fuel doomsday predictions. He found himself fascinated by the Maya’s choice of placement for settlements, often in inhospitable areas — a question that has perplexed scholars.
But the teenager’s constellation theory doesn’t give a credible answer, one scholar said. Archeologists have been skeptical about the potential discovery in the Yucatan, noting that locals there tend to bristle at faraway claims of “uncharted” areas in their backyard.
The few surviving Maya texts make no reference to a set of constellations, making it difficult to know which ones they would have used to lay out their civilization — if they even had the organizational capacity to pull it off.
“To look for some sort of magic key is a fool’s errand I’m afraid,” said David Pendergast, an archeologist who spent three decades focusing on the Maya with the Royal Ontario Museum.
He said it’s not likely the Maya could have managed to do it, as there wasn’t a central government to oversee such a project.
“The Maya didn’t think of themselves as Maya. In fact, we don’t know what they called themselves,” he said. “They were not one people, they were a whole range of groups essentially living in city states.
“There are quite a few sites that would probably not fit the (constellation) pattern … That doesn’t say, of course, that this boy hasn’t pinpointed a site.”
Still, undocumented ruins are common in the region, and the rate of excavations is slowing because of costs, Pendergast said.
“The fundamental fact is,” he said, “if you took an area where there were no major sites shown, the odds that you would strike a major site in the area are quite high, because there are sites all over the place.”