Research Highlights / Full Story

A multi-university, multidisciplinary research team is using sophisticated imaging technology to unlock the secrets of ancient Mexico. Through a partnership with NASA, the team is collecting hyperspectral and multispectral images of the landscape to map modern floral communities and agricultural land use in Oaxaca.

The state of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico has a 10,000-year history of human occupation. It was the center of ancient Mexico's prominent Zapotec state and has been a center for archeological and anthropological study and fieldwork for decades.

Led by Dr. Bill Middleton, professor and chair of the department of material culture sciences at RIT, the research team has uncovered new information about the kingdom's origin and ultimate decay. "Hyperspectral technology, which images simultaneously in over 240 colors (or spectral channels), is allowing us to record and collect high-quality data on a wide area, over 30 thousand square kilometers in total," says Dr. David Messinger, director of RIT's Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory and a member of the research team. "This allows us to create the most comprehensive picture of current and past land use, environmental degradation, and landscape evolution ever developed for Southern Mexico."

Teams of field workers are using the imagery to more accurately assess local environments. The data collected is compared to sediment samples collected from ancient land surfaces, which are analyzed for plant microfossils such as opal phytoliths and pollen and used to reconstruct ancient environments and interpret how the region's landscape has evolved over time and the human impact on that evolution.

The team's preliminary findings indicate that periods of human stability actually enhanced landscape stability and prevented degradation, greatly contrasting modern views on human impacts on the environment. The team is continuing fieldwork at several excavation sites and hopes the research can further promote environmental preservation programs in Mexico.