Unfortunately, when something seems too good to be true, all too often that's because it is in fact not true at all. And that, alas, appears to be the case with a feel-good story that did the rounds this week: that of a 15-year-old Quebec boy who used ingenuity and application to find the ruins of a previously unknown Mayan city.
The young man's ingenuity and application are beyond doubt, even if the story's ending may not be quite what it appeared. And that story, to recap, went like this: It occurred to William Gadoury, of Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec, a self-taught student of Mayan civilization, that the distribution of that ancient culture's settlements mirrored the constellations they drew among the stars.
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He overlaid 22 such constellations on a map and used them to locate 117 known ancient cities. But he found that one star in a 23rd constellation didn't have a corresponding city. So, using the resources of both the Canadian Space Agency and Google Earth, he located what appeared to be a man-made structure beneath the forest canopy.
It was a story that was too good to resist – including for us here at Discovery News - but shortly after the story caught fire, a number of Mayan experts emerged to pour cold water on it all.
One of the first was David Stuart, an anthropologist from The Mesoamerica Center-University of Texas at Austin, who in a now-deleted Facebook post vented that, "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."
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That post was reported by George Dvorsky at Gizmodo, who also procured the opinion of Thomas Garrison, an anthropologist at USC Dornsife and an expert in remote sensing, that what the satellite images reveal is in fact a relic cornfield, or milpa. "I'd guess it's been fallow for 10-15 years. This is obvious to anyone that has spent any time at all in the Maya lowlands," he told Dvorsky.
Dvorsky further solicited the view of Ivan Šprajc from the Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies in Slovenia, who said that, "Very few Maya constellations have been identified, and even in these cases we do not know how many and which stars exactly composed each constellation. It is thus impossible to check whether there is any correspondence between the stars and the location of Maya cities."
Over at Wired, Susan Zhang reached out to Susan Milbrath, a curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who emailed her to say that, "The Maya area was so densely occupied in Classic Maya times that many years ago a well known archaeologist, Ed Kurjack, told me that the area looked much like the Ohio Valley, denuded of trees and full of towns that were fairly close to one another. So at any given point you would be likely to find an archaeological site."
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And Rachel Feltman at the Washington Post published an email from University of California at San Diego archaeologist Geoffrey Braswell, who said he has been to the sites in the satellite images and that they are in fact old fields filled with weeds (and perhaps marijuana) and a seasonally drained patch of swamp - although an interesting colonial archaeological site is nearby.
All of which feels a little like disproving the existence of Santa while eating the Easter Bunny, but it can not be emphasized enough that the fault here does not lie with Gadoury, who is to be commended for his original thinking and self-motivation. As Garrison said, "I applaud the young kid's effort and it's exciting to see such interest in the ancient Maya and remote sensing technology in such a young person ... I hope that this young scholar will consider his pursuits at the university level so that his next discovery (and there are plenty to be made) will be a meaningful one."
It is, however, a cautionary lesson to those of us in the science journalism and popularization business to be perpetually cautious and skeptical in our reporting. As Feltman noted at the Washington Post: "Without a formal, peer-reviewed study of the stars-and-cities hypothesis (and even with one), it's a bit reckless to run with the conclusion that it has been proven." That finding was echoed by an anonymous researcher who told Vice that, "the media really ought to wait until after a finding has passed through peer review before making announcements; this discovery would be unlikely to pass such review."
Feltman had a particularly thoughtful and sensitive final word: "Citizen science is great, and it's even more exciting when a teen does it," she wrote. "And maybe there's some nugget of something in Gadoury's research that will go somewhere. But that doesn't mean we're doing him - or the researchers who have devoted their lives to studying this stuff - any favors by letting this story run wild."