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The legacy of the Maya forest is entwined with the Maya people who have lived and worked across this landscape over the past five millennia or more. The signatures of their land use, the complexity of their strategies, and the diversity of their adaptation is only recently being investigated, let alone understood. This special issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology takes a close look at the region and brings into focus the intricacies that must be considered in the explanations of the rise and fall of the Maya as well as the conservation of the Maya forest today. The papers herein combine archaeological and ethnographic data on the Maya and the long history of their relationship with the forest. Underscoring all the papers is the evidence that the Maya tropics are resilient as a result of the land use strategies that have become a part of its essence.
Consensus has not yet been reached regarding the role of human-caused environmental change in the history of Classic Maya civilization. On one side of the debate, researchers argue that growing populations and agricultural expansion resulted in environmental over-exploitation that contributed to societal collapse. Researchers on the other side of the debate propose more gradual environmental change resulting from intentional and sustainable landscape management practices. In this study, we use zooarchaeological data from 23 archaeological sites in 11 inland drainage systems to evaluate the hypothesis of reduction of forest cover due to anthropogenic activities across the temporal and spatial span of the ancient Maya world. Habitat fidelity statistics derived from zooarchaeological data are presented as a proxy for the abundance of various habitat types across the landscape. The results of this analysis do not support a model of extensive land clearance and instead suggest considerable chronological and regional stability in the presence of animals from both mature and secondary forest habitats. Despite relative stability, some chronological variation in land cover was observed, but the variation does not fit expected patterns of increased forest disturbance during periods of greatest population expansion. These findings indicate a complex relationship between the ancient Maya and the forested landscape.
The ancient Maya have been accused of destroying their forests yet the Maya forest today is replete with economic value, and contemporary traditional Maya forest gardeners manage and maintain the dominant plants of the forest for their economic values. Paleoenvironmental reconstructions of the Maya area have relied on the distribution of primarily wind borne pollen in ancient soil deposits, but the majority of these plants are pollinated biotically. An examination of the pollen syndromes of the dominant species of the Maya forest and the forest gardens demonstrates that only one of the dominant plants of the forest today appears in the pollen record of paleoenvironmental soil cores. In contrast, all the herbs and grasses of the high performance milpa, although dominated by maize, are in the pollen record. Rather than deforested, I suggest that the ancient Maya created a mosaic of field to forest, very little of which can be effectively defined in the palynological record.
Environmental degradation has long been a chief suspect in the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization and abandonment of many of the large cities of Mesoamerica. The popular and scholarly presses are replete with references to this and often specifically that the collapse involved deforestation brought on by lime-burning for construction cement. The scenario painted is one in which the oft-acclaimed great Maya builders and architectural craftsmen continued to utilize a horrifically wasteful technology until it helps destroy their civilization. While the hypothesis is seductively plausible, it fits neither the portrait we have painstakingly constructed of intelligent, innovative craftsmen nor indeed much of the material evidence. It is much more likely that the Maya were skilled craftsmen with a sophisticated understanding of their construction materials, production, and use. In this paper the archaeological evidence and materials science will be contrasted with the traditional view of Maya lime-burning and used to argue that construction was not the destructive activity that has been assumed.
Much Maya research has studied water management, but very little has studied water quality. Water chemistry reflects local and regional geology, soil, and land uses. Thus, it can supply a useful link between past and contemporary environmental conditions. This research analyzes the water quality of sources near archaeological wetland sites in the Three Rivers Region, northwestern Belize to better understand Precolumbian Maya land and water use potentials and possibilities for contemporary water use at these sites. We explore quality complications for crop types, including forests and orchards, as well as paleoenvironmental and modern botanical information to test hypotheses about water limits and possibilities in the region. Our evaluation of water quality also presents implications for domestic consumption of the region's waters and public health. Broad scale results for this region show chemically distinct water sources that include waters that are limited for agricultural and domestic uses, and other waters that are acceptable for these uses. We infer that near surface water chemistry in the lowland part of our study region also changed from the Preclassic into the Terminal Classic Period and beyond due to sea level and concomitant groundwater rise, which had profound impacts on Maya land and water use that continue to the present. In sum, we review Maya Lowlands water quality and present a case study in Belize to understand better the wetland agricultural and domestic use implications influencing this tropical, karst civilization.
Understanding agriculture in tropical landscapes is an interdisciplinary task, focusing the interest of the ecological, physical and social sciences. Reporting on results of a long-term collaborative study of Lakandon Maya agroforestry, I review our recent insights into successional processes and the genesis of anthropic soil under Maya management. Milpa, a multicropping system centered on maize with a range of many companion crops is the axis of traditional Maya resource use. Intervention in the early stages of regeneration after cycles of maize swidden cultivation ensures the rapid recovery of original woody vegetation, enriched by species valued by humans. Maya farmers and forest ecologists have approached the tropical environment in similar ways, identifying and working with functional groups of woody species, to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Planting or encouragement of selected tree species and the judicious use of low- intensity fires, help create anthropic soil of high organic matter and nutrient content, similar to the dark earths observed in Amazonia. The knowledge and skill revealed in Maya milpa agroforestry are invaluable tools for conservation of tropical biodiversity.
Research on agricultural terraces at the ancient Maya site of Chan in Belize has provided data on early intensive farming practices. Excavations and paleoethnobotanical analysis yielded pine charcoal, a tree not currently found in the immediate vicinity of the site. Pine has been studied primarily as an item of ritual or economic importance, and its significance in an agricultural context has gone unexplored. In this article I suggest that wood ash from household refuse, indicated by small fragments of pine charcoal recovered from agricultural terraces, was used to amend agricultural soil. Understanding the practical and ritual use of pine in can illuminate the ways in which the ancient Maya maintained soil fertility and aid in our reconstructions of agricultural practices.
This study describes some basic characteristics of twelve homegardens in the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico, an area that has not previously been a focus of homegarden research. Garden size, plant frequencies and diversity, plant use, and garden management strategies are discussed, and the characteristics of Soconusco gardens are compared with homegardens elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. Variability among Soconusco gardens is also examined. The role of homegardens within the context of traditional agroforestry systems is explored and the potential value of homegarden research for the development of both environmental and socioeconomic programs in the Soconusco region is discussed.
Using the quantitative techniques of phytosociology and ordination, we test the hypothesis that human agency has created the flowering plant species composition of the forests of Cayo, Belize. Specifically, we test the degree to which Yucatec Maya domestic forest gardens and pastures share assemblages of native species with three nearby samples of uninhabited forest, in other words whether the eastern Petén is a “feral forest.” As have previous studies, our data show that the species assemblages of both pastures and gardens share a high affinity with the forests that surround them. This implies that one is likely derived from the other, but does not prove causality or directionality. NMS ordination of native woody plants in the three sectors shows a far more robust affinity (clustering in the same region in two-dimensional space) between the compositions of the forests and pastures, as opposed to forest and gardens. We conclude that feral pastures – clearly post-contact phenomena – should be considered, in addition to domestic gardens, to be antecedents to the contemporary Maya forest.
The northern Maya Lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula are often characterized by outside observers as a challenging environment for agriculturalists. The limestone bedrock appears to have only a patchy cover of thin soil, yet the Maya inhabitants, both ancient and modern, have managed to successfully cultivate this landscape through a variety innovative techniques and micro-scale adaptations. Homegardens have a long history in the region, and continue today to provide most of the diversity in the Maya diet. Adaptation of Maya homegardeners to the thin soil of the northern peninsula may best be described as container gardening, in which natural cavities in the limestone bedrock serve as planters. The deep, vertical A-horizons of the bedrock cavities are not recognized in regional characterization of the soil, yet they may represent the primary soil resource for homegarden adaptation in portions of the northern Maya Lowlands.
Conservation and development agencies in Petén, Guatemala have been promoting home gardens among migrant families in order to improve the welfare of these families and to conserve natural resources. The agencies have not been successful. However, native Peteneros do have a productive gardening system that is compatible with resource conservation. This essay describes the structure, management, and economic and social benefits of 23 traditional Petén home gardens, which have over 180 useful plant species. Traditional gardens in Petén are highly diverse, rich, and productive (mean number of species per garden is 54; mean number of plants is 392). In addition, the gardens can contribute up to 15 percent of household income, improve family nutrition, and strengthen social networks. However, for reasons described in this essay, traditional home gardening is declining in Petén.