Doubts cast on teenager's 'lost city' discovery

Canadian Space Agency satellite images showing the lost Mayan city Image copyright Canadian Space Agency
Image caption Satellite images of the site suggest some form of human intervention on the ground

Is it a lost Mayan city or a crop of cannabis?

Earlier this week BBC Trending, and other media outlets, reported on the story of William Gadoury, a remarkable teenager from Canada who, along with the Canadian Space Agency and the University of New Brunswick, claimed to have discovered evidence of the existence of an ancient Mayan city hidden in the jungles of Mexico. But now some experts have disputed those claims.

William, 15, from Quebec theorised that the locations of Mayan cities might correspond to stars in Mayan constellations. By overlaying Mayan star maps from ancient books onto Google Earth images of the Yucatan Peninsula, he concluded that 117 Mayan cities matched the star positions. After finding a discrepancy at a certain location in the Mexican jungle, he was provided with radar images by the Canadian Space Agency, and asked a Remote Sensing expert Dr. Armand Larocque from the University of New Brunswick to analyse them. They concluded that William had found an ancient city - one which he named K'aak Chi meaning 'Mouth of Fire'.

Scientists from the Canadian Space Agency described William's work as "exceptional" and presented him with a medal of merit. The inspirational story went viral. But since then several experts have challenged the research's conclusions and the prominence given to them by the media.

"The whole thing is a mess - a terrible example of junk science hitting the internet in free-fall," wrote Dr David Stuart, an anthropologist and an authority on Mayan civilisation in a post on his Facebook page.

"The ancient Maya didn't plot their ancient cities according to constellations," he added. "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."

Another anthropologist, Thomas Garrison from the University of Southern California, also thinks it's corn field. He told Gizmodo that remote sensing needs to be backed up by boots on the ground, or "ground-truthing". He said "You have to be able to confirm what you are identifying in a satellite image or other type of scene.".

And another expert, Geoffrey Braswell from the University of San Diego, suggested that the boy may have, in fact, found a Marijuana field.

If William is wrong - and that point may not be definitively settled until an expedition is sent to the site - then this talented teenager can take comfort that a lot of journalists and professional scientists, including some from the Canadian Space Agency were also persuaded. But then discovering lost civilisations isn't exactly rocket science.

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