Open Access
How to translate text using browser tools
1 September 2008 Dominant Plants Of The Maya Forest And Gardens Of El Pilar: Implications For Paleoenvironmental Reconstructions
Anabel Ford
Author Affiliations +

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.


The contiguous Maya forest of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico is the northernmost tropical forest in the New World and is known for its distinctive biodiversity featuring an abundance of important economic plants (The Nature Conservancy 2007). Forming the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Caribbean coast of Mexico and Belize and the greater Petén of Guatemala, the Maya forest is presently considered a conservation risk as its biodiversity is impacted by the expansion of pasture, plough, and population (Conservation International 2007). This was, however, once home to the ancient Maya civilization that, in the Classic period (AD 250–900), supported a burgeoning agrarian society based on centuries of local sustainable development and resource management (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Central Maya Lowlands with El Pilar and other Maya Centers (map created by BRASS/El Pilar).


Paleoenvironmental and archaeological evidence has traditionally been used to suggest that the end of the Classic period was one of social and political failure caused by environmental devastation (see Brenner et al. 2002). The question often asked is: Why did the Maya destroy their environment and provoke their collapse? Perhaps the question is not phrased correctly: maybe they did not destroy their environment. This paper explores the possibility that paleoenvironmental interpretations based on pollen data are flawed and instead that modern Maya forest gardens provide important evidence for ancient Maya environmental sustainability.

Mounting botanical studies demonstrate the important economic qualities of the Maya forest itself. Today, many commercially valued plants grow both in the forest and the garden, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia B.D.Jackson) and cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) for example. Commercially, the forest value has been measured in the hard currency of the world economy with dyewood, lumber, and chewing gum, all which were major economic facets of the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries (Schwartz 1990). However, the majority of the dominant plants of the modern Maya forest are economically important to the Maya themselves. In the managed household forest gardens, forest plants appear for such diverse uses as food, medicine, construction, utensils, spice, and ritual. Curiously, the forest, while biodiverse, shows relative homogeneity, unlike the Amazon, and various researchers have linked this to human interaction and management (Campbell et al. 2006; Plotkin and Famolare 1992:115). These data suggests that the Maya have long managed their forest to emphasize economically useful species.

While information on the economic value of the Maya forest is not readily accessible or even recognized in the archaeological literature on the Maya, it is commonly known among traditional farmers of the region as shown in this paper. Not surprisingly, the dominant plants of the protected forests of the region are found managed by traditional agriculturalists. These traditional managed forests areas are called forest gardens.

What is the relationship of these dominant plants of the forest and those of the traditional forest gardens to the data presented in the paleoenvironmental reconstructions? How might contemporary knowledge and land use relate to the past? The careful management of economically valued species in household and forest garden argues strenuously against the current interpretation of Maya mismanagement of the tropical forests, suggesting the need for a reassessment of paleoenvironmental reconstructions.

Understanding the pollination syndromes, the way pollen is dispersed, is critical to environmental reconstructions. Examining the pollination syndromes of the dominant plants of the forest and forest gardens provides a basis for assessing the reconstructions of past environments. Paleoenvironmental reconstructions are founded on lake core sediments and are based predominantly on wind pollen (Bradley 1999:363–64), while it is commonly understood among botanists that wind pollination is represented by less than 2% of the tropical forest species (Turner 2001:130).

This paper considers the Maya forest of the Central Maya Lowlands as a starting point in understanding the development of the Maya forest as a garden. The study describes the plants of a local cadre of twenty-three modern Maya forest gardeners within the vicinity of the ancient Maya archaeological center of El Pilar in Belize and Guatemala (Figure 2). With a general description of the nature of the plants they use, I focus on twenty dominant forest plants identified by Campbell and others (2006), all which are found in the gardens. Based on open-ended interviews, the general qualities of traditional Maya forest gardens and their management of the dominant species of the Maya forest are discussed. These dominant plants are examined for their pollination syndrome and compared with the paleoenvironmental record for a match. This study shows that because the current paleoenvironmental data rely on wind borne pollen recovered from lake core sediments, they are limited in their scope (cf. Jones 1994). Over 98% of tropical forest plants are pollinated by fauna, that is insects, birds, and bats (Turner 2001:130); the Maya forest is no exception.

Figure 2

The El Pilar Forest Garden Network (map created by BRASS/El Pilar).


The Central Lowland Maya Area of El Pilar

Today, the hills and ridges of the Central Maya lowland area support the broadleaf forest dominated by palms such as corozo (Attalea cohune), guano (Sabal morrisiana) and escoba (Chriysophilia stauracantha), hardwoods, such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylia) and malerio (Aspidosperma cruentum), as well as fruits such as mamey (Alseis yucatanensis), hogplum (Spondias radlkofleri), chicle (Manilkara zapota) and ramón (Brosimum alicastrum). See tables for family and authorities for these and all other plant names. The plant communities of the hills and ridges rely on a thin blanket of soil that forms directly on the limestone, known as molisols or rendzinas. Molisols are rich, friable, and fertile, but dependent on the continual introduction of organics from decomposed leaf litter for maintenance. These ridges and hills are precisely the same locations that were preferred by the farming settlements of the ancient Maya (Fedick and Ford 1990).

The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, and the major Maya center it embraces, is situated at the eastern margin and ecotone at the edge of the interior ridge and hill area, with its notable absence of surface water, and the riverine area of the Belize River watershed, with significant presence of surface water (Figure 2). In ancient Maya times, El Pilar represented a vital civic center, the largest in the local area and only 50 km from Tikal. While building and maintenance of El Pilar spanned 1800 years (Ford 2004) and the civic buildings were abandoned after the Terminal Classic period c. AD 1000, there is no clear evidence that the landscape was equally abandoned. The small numbers of European forays into the Central Maya Lowlands after contact suggest that settlements existed throughout the area; however, no major centers as in the Classic period were encountered (see Jones 1998; Thompson 1988). The importance of the landscape for subsistence farmers was retained into the historic period (Mazzarelli 1977), and place names around El Pilar were known destinations by the Maya refugees of the Caste Wars (Dumond 1997). In colonial times these scattered communities were undetected and their residents lived an essentially subsistence existence.

Historically, the El Pilar area embraced dispersed settlements such as Yaloch, Chorro, and San José. The Maya maintained scattered settlements in the forest, hidden from the growing British settlements of the river valleys (Mazzarelli 1967). These settlements were ephemeral and leave little trace today (Yeager et al. 2005). In the nineteenth century, these settlements also incorporated Maya refugees of the Caste War of the Yucatan (Dumond 1997). Once discovered in the early twentieth century, settlements were forcibly relocated into the Belize River Valley (Sullivan 1978). Today, Maya descendants are found in the riverside villages, many of whom are still dedicated to the traditional agricultural practice of forest gardening. These are the cadre of traditional farmers that are the focus of this paper.


Research at El Pilar has included community participation in studies of traditional home and forest gardens since the inception of work at the site (CONAP 2004; Ford 1990, 1998, 2004; Ford and Fedick 1992; IoA 2006). Collective work by the El Pilar communities, the El Pilar archaeological project, Amigos de El Pilar (AdEP) and Help for Progress (HfP) developed the network and the description of the traditional forest gardens of the El Pilar area. From the meetings, interviews, and visits, we have assembled an understanding of the direct and tangible values provided by community forest gardeners (MesoAmerican Research Center 2007) and resulted in a compilation of the general qualities of the forest gardens.

From 2004 to 2006, based on the foundation work of HfP in identifying the local traditional farmers with meetings and visits, the El Pilar project team followed with field visits to twenty-three traditional Maya forest gardeners in the El Pilar area. These traditional forest gardeners provided our team with an appreciation of their practice and philosophy of work. The team was able to plot the locations of their home gardens and their forest reserves (Figure 2). Data were collected and organized by student leader Kelly Moore with student participants from the El Pilar project team. Forest garden sites were located with a Global Positioning System device and plotted in the context of the Maya Forest Geographic Information System (ADL 2007; Ford and Clarke 2004).

All gardens were visited with the owners and, in open-ended interviews, the individual forest gardeners discussed their plots, identified plants, and responded to specific questions. The forest gardeners each were fully aware of the economic investment they were making, the contribution made to their households, as well as their role in conservation. Plants utilized at the time of the interviews were self-identified and recorded. The El Pilar project team's objectives were to gather data pertinent to the overall complexity of the forest gardens, to document the diversity of plants that were managed, and to itemize the plant species the traditional farmers said they maintained in the gardens. The team was particularly interested in native species and documented the presence of twenty recognized dominant forest species in the gardens. Within the context of these activities, the team gathered broad information on the categories of plant habit (grass, herb, shrub, tree, vine, etc.), their uses, general origin, and the evidence of the dominant plants of the Maya forest. With data on the variety of plants in the forest gardens, we used the literature to identify the pollen syndromes for the dominant plants of the forest and the forest gardens. This provided a basis for understanding the pollen data from the lake cores.


Composition of Forest Gardens

Based on the visits and interviews with 23 forest gardeners, we were able to compile comparable data for 18 of the forest gardens ( The results presented here are based on the 18 gardens. Agricultural activities of the forest gardens were located in the zones of recognized soil properties by the farmers as well as by soil scientists (Jenkin et al. 1976). Furthermore, they were the same zones that the ancient Maya utilized in the past (Fedick and Ford 1990).

The self-enumerated plant identifications by the gardeners in their individual gardens demonstrate a wide variety of species and habits. They represent diverse polycultivation plots that supply food, fiber and fruit, as well as fortification for soil. While many studies have focused on the maize fields and their productivity in terms of grain (Whitmore and Turner 2002), every micro-environment of an individual plot was part of the mosaic that yielded plant and animal resources for the household (see Kintz 1990:6; Wilken 1987). Ecological variations within a field or plot were generally acknowledged as advantageous rather than limiting; plants that required moist soil were encouraged in the low areas while plants that preferred drainage were nurtured in the uplands. The forest gardeners' intimate knowledge of their own landscape and the importance of the variety of habitats was part of this practice (Tzul 2001). Insects that pollinate, birds and bats that spread seed, and forage for four-legged animals are also recognized and encouraged within the context of the plot, as, of course, are animals that provide protein (see Atran 1999).

Forest gardeners of El Pilar identified a diversity of over 350 plants that they were using in the dry season (Table 1). The forest gardeners recognize nearly twenty general uses for the plants they manage (Figure 3). They are used to promote income, construction, fruit, medicine, and decor. There are plants that are used directly – food, spice, medicine; that are components of end products – soap, baskets, fans; that are enjoyed for their beauty – flowers, shade trees, foliage; and that are recognized to attract animals – birds, bees, deer. Many plants have multiple uses. The medicinal category incorporated 54% of all the plants of the forest. Food for humans accounted for 43% and was differentiated from food for animals, such as forage (10%). Raw materials for production accounted for 27% and included items destined for soap, utensils, toys, fish bait, and ingredients for household implements. Plants for diverse culinary needs included beverages (14%), spices (8%), and oil (5%). Nearly every household need is met by the resources of these forest gardens.

Figure 3

Uses of Plants in the Maya Forest Gardens.


Table 1

Plant Groups of the Forest Garden.


With 500 years of plant exchange after the Spanish conquest, it is no revelation that plants from the tropics worldwide are represented in the contemporary Maya forest garden. The forest gardens of the El Pilar area today may have banana from Southeast Asia, mango from South Asia, citrus from Asia, and coffee from Africa together with the bounty of plants native to the Maya forest. Nevertheless, the majority (53%) of the plants are indigenous to the Maya forest and Mesoamerica in general (Table 2).

Table 2

Origins of Plants in the Forest Gardens.


Among the native plants of the forest gardens are representatives of the dominant plants of the forest (Table 3). This shows an important connection between the forest and the gardens and demonstrates the investment in the native species by the traditional farmer today. Among the most widely represented is ramón, self-identified in 77% of the compared gardens.

Table 3

Twenty Dominant Species Found in the Garden.


The household management of the dominant forest species is important in the conservation of the Maya forest. That the forest species occur in these gardens is demonstration that people are a crucial component in the maintenance and ultimately the regeneration of the Maya forest.

The managed forest gardens themselves have a different suite of dominant species emphasizing their use in the contemporary household (Table 4). It is noteworthy that native plants of the Maya forest are important and make up over half the species. Importantly, 35% of the dominant species of the garden are from the dominant species of the forest, including ramón, corozo, chicle, and gumbolimbo. As the consistent stress is on useful plants, the gardens have incorporated an array of plants drawing from native species (Table 4). Among other native species that make up more than half the garden species are found avocado, allspice, bullet tree, guava, pixoy, and guanacaste all contributing to the support of native species of the forest.

Table 4

Dominant plants of the forest Gardens.


These forest gardens are integrated polycultivation plots where all major plant types are represented in layers and tiers from open sun to closed shade (Figure 4, see Table 1). They provide space for plant nurseries under the productive trees, fields for the Mesoamerican trilogy of maize-beans-squash as well as dozens of other annual herbs destined for home use that traditionally are grown in concert in the maize fields. A number of other crops are regularly found in the milpa: watermelon, jicama, sweet potato, makal, cucumber, chaya, chile, tomato, and a variety of legumes (see Bye and Qualset 1999).

Figure 4

The Structure of the Maya Forest Garden (illustration produced by BRASS/El Pilar).


As common in other Maya communities, the traditional forest gardeners of El Pilar recognize the importance of their gardens in the contribution to biodiversity (Gómez-Pompa 1992; Gómez-Pompa and Bainbridge 1989; Gómez-Pompa et al. 1991) as well as environmental interactions (Atran 1993, 1999; Atran et al. 2000; Gómez-Pompa and Kaus 1990). They are acutely aware of the importance of managing surface water on a limestone base and work with shade and water purposely. They understand ecological services: conservation of moisture, replenishment of soil, the maintenance of the air, and the detention of erosion. Their practice includes a constant vigilance of their plots. They know where the beehives are, they acknowledge the importance of animals, and they are conscientious about potential disease, recognizing and addressing changes immediately. They have no specific word for weed, but rather use the compound term “good and bad herb,” distinguishing the habit of the plant. Depending on the surroundings, in one context plants may be good while in another bad (see Gleissman 1978, 1981). Ever alert to modifications and growth, they will happily keep a volunteer herb or tree when they determine it makes for good competition, but later it may crowd out preferred trees, as with an example of allspice, and be removed. This is where values shift, such that in one setting a particular growth is desirable while in another it is detrimental. The forest gardeners of El Pilar demonstrate a vital understanding of their environment and the consequences of their interactions with the environment, something that has also been seen as part of their language (Atran 1993, 1999).

Pollen Syndromes of the Forest and Forest Gardens

Turning to the composition of the forest and the forest garden, I now consider the issue of pollination. Taking a look at the trees that make up the majority of the Maya forest (Campbell et al. 2006), what is remarkable is how they are pollinated (see Table 3). Nearly all of the plants are pollinated by various kinds of animals (Anderson et al. 1991; Brooklyn Botanic Garden 2007; Chazdon et al. 2003; Crane and Balerdi 2007a,b; Hequet 2007; Novick et al. 2003; Peters 1983; Tomlinson 1990; Turner 2001; Tzul 2007). Only one plant, the ramón, is wind pollinated (Peters 1983). Considering the composition of the dominant plants of the contemporary forest gardens, there too, wind pollination is the exception (see Table 4). The majority (84%) of the plants from the gardens are animal pollinated (Afik et al. 2006; Anderson et al. 1991; Carr 2006; Chazdon et al. 2003; Collins 1960; Daehler 2005a,b,c,d,e; Fischer and Santos 2001; Frankie et al. 2004; Hamrick 2007; Hequet 2007; Lenzi et al. 2005; Nepi and Pacini 1993; Parfitt and Pickett 1980; Plants for a Future 2007; Roubik et al. 2005; Sather 1999; Tomlinson 1990; Tudge 2006; Turner 2001; Tzul 2007; Whitlock et al. 2001). This is consistent with the assessment of tropical forest environments worldwide where at least 98% of the plants are pollinated by animals (Turner 2001: 130) and where winds below the canopy are so slight that even small grains of pollen are too heavy to spread effectively in and outside the forest (Faegri and Pijl 1979:39).


The pollen data from lake core sediments of the Petén and their interpretations have sustained the view that the Maya civilization, with its population growth and concomitant environmental impacts, destroyed the forest and caused the collapse of the civilization (see Diamond 2005; Webster 2002 but compare Gómez -Pompa and Kaus 1999). The source of this position has been the fluctuation of the family Moraceae, and the specific tree Brosimum alicastrum, also known as ramón (Binford et al. 1987; Brenner 2002; Islebe 1996; Leyden 2002). It has been consistently noted that with the rise in the proportion of Moraceae, and therefore Brosimum alicastrum, there is a lower proportion of grasses and herbaceous species. Conversely, with the rise of grasses and herbaceous species, there is a drop in Moraceae, and by inference Brosimum alicastrum. This is particularly noteworthy for the contrast from Classic to the Postclassic periods where it is argued that the rise of Moraceae reflects the recovery of the forest, yet it is implied for the Preclassic into the Classic periods as well, when Moraceae drops with the rise of the Classic Maya civilization (Binford et al. 1987; Brenner 2002; Islebe 1996; Leyden 2002).

The signal of Moraceae, and presumably Brosimum alicastrum as well, is an important one in the interpretation of the ancient Maya landscape, but what does it really mean? It has been unilaterally accepted that this signal is the reflection of the forest's contraction and expansion. Ramón, however, is both a pioneer as well as a high canopy species. While it occupies an important niche in the top twenty dominant species of the forest and is an important canopy species today, it also is among the early succession plants particularly in the areas of exposed limestone (Lambert and Arnason 1982), noted in Maya pastures (Campbell this volume), and traditionally has played a role in the Maya forest garden (Culhane 2002; Vohman 2007).

Given the diversity found within the traditional forest gardens, and the role of ramón in the forest and the forest gardens, alternative explanations must be entertained before the current equation of ramón and forest may be accepted. Among them should be 1) the justification of why ramón is used as the forest indicator rather than simply one signal of change, 2) the reflection on a diversified economic forest that would restrict the spread of ramón pollen, 3) the consideration of the drop of ramón in the Classic period as a result of ramón suppression in favor of other important fruit and hardwood trees that do not contribute to the pollen assay, and 4) the interpretation of the rise of ramón in Postclassic as a consequence of the rich pioneering opportunity offered by the lack of maintenance of the Classic period public constructions.

Turning to a consideration of the grasses and herbaceous species, these have been taken as an indicator of open cleared forests. Yet all these species are common and cohabit the traditional high performance milpa (Wilken 1987). Many of these herbs are integral to local diet and nutrition. Examples abound and include amaranths and chenopods, used for edible greens and seeds (Bye and Calvin 1999). In addition, many of the woody herbs and grasses that immediately follow in the stages of succession, when maize was no longer sown, provide important food sources as well (Brubacher 1989) as they also play a role in the fostering of regeneration (Lambert and Arnason 1986). This regeneration is orchestrated to include numerous fruit and hardwood trees that later provide necessities for the household. In fact, the major herbaceous pollen identified in the cores is from plants in managed milpa settings (Bye and Calvin 1999; Birol and Villalba 2006). In other words, the signal of ramón and herbs in the pollen record are simply recording the presence of the Maya on the landscape, not the destruction of the forest.

In this new scenario, the presence of herbs and grasses are a signal of human habitation and land management, not the absence of forest (see Jones 1994; VanDenwarker 2006). It is well known that herbs and grasses are wind pollinated and will contribute robust quantities of wind borne pollen across the landscape and into the sediment records of lakes (Bradley 1999). The issue is not that there is disturbance, for there certainly must have been as settlements are recorded in all the well drained zones (Ford 1986; Ford 1990; Puleston 1973; Rice 1976), but whether the forest was displaced because of these disturbances. An alternative hypothesis is that the changes wrought with the expansion of populations and civic centers altered the environment to a more varied mosaic of fields, orchestrated succession plots, and managed forests, leaving no area untouched (Gómez-Pompa and Kaus 1990; Peters 1983), but like the forest gardeners of El Pilar, the mosaic was managed under the framework of tropical diversity to maintain soil quality, conserve moisture, manage surface water, and provide for the population.

Reflecting on the contemporary forest gardens, it is evident that they are integrated plots aimed to fulfill basic household needs. All major plant habits are represented with layers and tiers of trees, bushes, and ground plants that range from sun and shade (see Figure 4). Complex and dynamic, the ever-changing plots that are maintained by the forest gardeners reflect the changing seasons, the importance of household needs, and the gathering knowledge of the manager. The plots have trees that produce pollen for animal distribution as well as plants that are contributors to wind pollen distribution (Table 4). Plant cover is a part of every stage of succession. An open field at one stage will be an orchard at another representing the dynamic investment in the landscape.

The dynamic quality of the tropical environment introduces variety from one forest garden to the next and depends on the agricultural and residential cycle. Further, with the diversity of the mosaic produced at the landscape level, one can well imagine that at the time of the Classic period with the greatest population levels, pollen formed by the disturbance herbs and grasses that produce copious wind pollen could easily overshadow the forest species unrepresented by wind pollination, but not underrepresented across the area.

The Classic period residential structures themselves, distributed at c. 200 per sq km in the well-drained uplands and marginally present outside swamps in all areas at lower densities (Fedick and Ford 1990; Ford 1986; Ford and Clarke 2004, Ford et. al. in press), would be expected to release a signal of disturbance. But disturbance need not mean at the expense of the forest. Since the forest pollen signal would be underrepresented, we cannot expect to have the full story captured in the evidence of the ancient lake core sediments (Gómez -Pompa and Kaus 1999:3). We need to infer the whole from an understanding of the agricultural system.

The Maya forest gardens represent cycles of growth, maturation, and demise with a continuum of annual open high performance milpa fields to closed orchards of diverse fruits and hardwoods trees. Each household supports plots in phases from field to forest. This continuum of fields, gardens, and forests together meet the needs of household subsistence. As the Maya forest and gardens of today share in common the maintenance of twenty dominant trees known from the forest, it is reasonable to suggest that this relationship has a long past. Hints that link to the past may be found in the promise of identifying phytoliths in archaeological soil deposits (Bryant 2003) to add to the data from the growing pollen record.

The pollination syndrome of the tropics parsimoniously explains the lack of other tree pollen in the lake core sediments of the Central Maya lowlands. Since ramón is but one of the dominant species of the forest, it stands as a potential indicator for the forest. Yet, the fact that it is the only species on the list of dominant trees that is pollinated by wind, it does not justify the reliance on ramón pollen as the key indicator of forest. It could be as likely that all twenty species now recognized as dominant species were part of the composite diversity of the Maya forest of the past. The fluctuations of ramón pollen are suggestive of another hypothesis: ramón is naturally present in the unmanaged forest, yet when humans are actively managing the forest, as must have been the case for the Classic period Maya as it is today with the contemporary Maya forest gardeners, they favor a greater diversity of tree species to meet their household needs. These are precisely the trees that will not appear in the lake pollen record and thus would have a significant impact on the reconstruction of the landscape.


In sum, contemporary forest garden plots are complex and cycled differently for each household to match its needs. These traditional gardens all share the dominant plants of the forest providing a backdrop for the regeneration of the forest architecture. In addition, these same gardens harbour many native species that are found in the forest itself. These species, too, are nurtured and help to maintain the biodiversity of the forest. Far from destroying the environment, the forest gardeners are supporting the forest, nurturing the economic plants that sustain their life and contribute to the maintenance of the Maya forest as a whole. These remarkable farmers are not only maintaining their time honoured traditions, but in their practice they are the real heroes of the conservation efforts in the region. Without them there likely will be no forest at all.

The contemporary traditional Maya forest gardener of the El Pilar area focuses on a diversity of plants that they recognize as useful, including plants that are used directly, are components of end products, are enjoyed for their beauty or to attract animals. The vast majority of the forest and garden plants rely on animals for pollination and consequently would not be conspicuously represented in the pollen captured in lake cores from the area. The data of the pollen record is a vital signature of the past environment, and needs to be critically interpreted. The lack of most of the forest trees in this paleoenvironmental record does not imply their absence from the landscape, just that their pollen is not easily carried by wind to the lakes. Indeed, their absence is consistent with expectations of palynologists worldwide who have long recognized the difficulty of vegetation reconstructions where there is a disparity in pollen distribution syndromes and even in production (Bradley 1999:362–64). That the Maya forest is a garden today and that the traditional forest gardens share native species suggests that the Maya have historically invested in the forest, and that the forest is dependent on management by people in a relationship that may very well reach into the distant past.


This project was inspired by lively discussions with David Campbell and Ronald Nigh, both have contributions in this volume. Exploring Solutions Past-The Maya Forest Alliance supported the fundamental research. Kelley Moore was an essential link to building the El Pilar Forest Garden Network, identifying the traditional forest gardeners and visiting their fields and home gardens. has been another important partner, making the data we have gathered available on the Internet for the forest gardeners to review and for the world to appreciate at Chrissie Bausch was helpful in tracking down the pollen syndromes, something that was not as simple as it might seem. It is not a high profile arena of research and publication. I also appreciate the insights of the anonymous reviewers and my able co-editor, Kitty Emery. For any errors or misrepresentations, I alone am responsible.

References Cited


ADL Alexandria Digital Library 2007. Maya Forest GIS. Available at: [verified October 2007].  Google Scholar


O. Afik, A. Dag, Z. Kerem, and S. Shafir . 2006. Analyses of avocado (Persea americana) nectar properties and their perception by honey bees (Apismellifera). Journal of Chemical Ecology 32:98–331. Google Scholar


A. B. Anderson, P. H. May, and M. J. Balick . 1991. The subsidy from nature: Palm forests, peasantry, and development on an Amazon frontier. Columbia University Press. New York. Google Scholar


S. Atran 1993. Itza Maya tropical agro-forestry. Current Anthropology 34:633–700. Google Scholar


S. Atran 1999. Managing the Maya commons: The value of local knowledge. In Ethnoecology: Situated knowledge/located lives. V. D. Nazarea , editor. 190–214.University of Arizona Press. Tucson. Google Scholar


S. Atran, D. Medin, N. Ross, E. Lynch, V. Vapnarsky, E. U. Ek', J. Coley, C. Timura, and M. Baran . 2000. Folkecology, cultural epidemiology, and the spirit of the commons: A garden experiment in the Maya lowlands, 1995–2000 University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Northwestern University, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Herbolaria Maya, Northeastern University. Google Scholar


C. Bacles, A. J. Lowe, and R. A. Ennos . 2006. Effective seed dispersal across a fragmented landscape. Science 311:628. Google Scholar


M. W. Binford, M. Brenner, T. J. Whitmore, A. Higuera-Gundy, E. S. Deevey, and B. Leyden . 1987. Ecosystems, Paleoecology and Human Disturbance in Subtropical and Tropical America. Quaternary Science Reviews 6:115–128. Google Scholar


E. Birol and E. R. Villalba . 2006. Estimating Mexican farmers' valuation of milpa diversity and genetically modified maize: A choice experiment approach. environmental economy and policy research working papers on line. Available at: (verified July 2008).  Google Scholar


R. S. Bradley 1999. Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing climates of the Quaternary (2nd edition). Academic Press. San Diego. Google Scholar


M. Brenner, M. F. Rosenmeier, D. A. Hodell, and J. H. Curtis . 2002. Paleolimnology of the Maya lowlands: Long-term perspectives on interactions among climate, environment, and humans. Ancient Mesoamerica 13:141–157. Google Scholar


Brooklyn Botanical Garden Some Plants and Their Pollinators. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


D. Brubacher, J. T. Arnason, and J. Lambert . 1989. Woody species and nutrient accumulation during the fallow period of milpa farming in Belize, C.A. Plant and Soil 114:165–172. Google Scholar


V. Bryant 2003. Invisible clues to New World plant domestication. Science 229:1029–1030. Google Scholar


M. B. Bush and R. Rivera . 2001. Reproductive ecology and pollen representation among neotropical trees. Global Ecology and Biogeography 10:359–367. Google Scholar


R. Bye and C. O. Qualset . 1999. The milpa project: Characterization of the structure of crop biodiversity and the magnitude of gene flow from wild or cultivated relatives to maize, bean, and squash. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


D. G. Campbell, A. Ford, K. Lowell, J. Walker, J. K. Lake, C. Ocampo-Raeder, A. Townesmith, and M. Balick . 2006. The feral forests of the eastern Petén. In Time and complexity in the neotropical lowlands. C. Erickson and W. Baleé , editors. 21–55.Columbia University Press. New York. Google Scholar


G. D. Carr 2006. Poaceae (Graminae). Available at: (verified November 2007).  Google Scholar


R. Chadzon, S. Careaga, C. Webb, and O. Vargas . 2003. Community and phylogenetic structure of reproduction traits of woody species in wet tropical forests. Ecological Monographs 73:331–348. Google Scholar


J. L. Collins 1960. The pineapple: botany, cultivation and utilization. Interscience Publishers. New York. Google Scholar


CONAP 2004. Plan maestro monumento cultural El Pilar en la Reserva de la Biósfera Maya. Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas. Guatemala City. Google Scholar


Conservation International 2007. Biodiversity Hotspots. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


J. H. Crane and C. F. Balerdi . Black sapote growing in the Florida home landscape. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


J. H. Crane and C. F. Balerdi . 2007. Canistel growing in the Florida home landscape. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


T. H. Culhane 2002. The mighty breadnut tree: From a few sprouts, monumental possibilities. Los Angeles Zoo View 36:10–12. Google Scholar


C. Daehler 2005. Pimenta dioica. Pacific island ecosystems at risk (PIER). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


C. Daehler 2005. Saccharum officinarum. Pacific island ecosystems at risk (PIER). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


C. Daehler 2005. Bucida buceras. Pacific island ecosystems at risk (PIER). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


C. Daehler 2005. Psidium guajava. Pacific island ecosystems at risk (PIER). Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


C. Daehler 2005. Carica papaya. Pacific island ecosystems at risk (PIER). Available at: (verified November 2007).  Google Scholar


J. Diamond 2004. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Viking Adult. New York. Google Scholar


D. E. Dumond 1997. The machete and the cross: Campesino rebellion in Yucatan. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln. Google Scholar


K. Faegri and L. van der Pijl . 1979. The principles of pollination ecology (3rd edition). Pergamon Press Inc., Maxwell House. Elmsford, NY. Google Scholar


S. L. Fedick and A. Ford . 1990. The prehistoric agricultural landscape of the central Maya lowlands: An examination of local variability in a regional context. World Archaeology 22:18–33. Google Scholar


E. Fischer and F. Dos Santos . 2001. Demography, phenology and sex of Callophylym brasiliense (Clusiaceae) trees in the Atlantic forest. Journal of Tropical Ecology 17:903–909. Google Scholar


A. Ford 1986. Population growth and social complexity: An examination of settlement and environment in the central Maya lowlands, Anthropological Research Papers No. 35. Arizona State University, Tempe.  Google Scholar


A. Ford 1990. Maya settlement in the Belize River area: Variations in residence patterns of the central Maya lowlands. In Prehistoric population history in the Maya lowlands. T. P. Culbert and D. S. Rice , editors. 167–181.University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque. Google Scholar


A. Ford , editor. 1998. The future of El Pilar: The integrated research and development plan for the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya flora and fauna, Belize-Guatemala. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, United States Man and the Biosphere Program. Washington, D.C. Google Scholar


A. Ford and J. Garber , editors. 2004. Integration among communities, centers, and regions: The case from El Pilar. In. The ancient Maya of the Belize valley: Half a century of archaeological research. 238–256.University Press of Florida. Gainesville. Google Scholar


A. Ford and K. C. Clarke . 2004. Maya forest GIS. UCSB: Alexandria Digital Library. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


A. Ford, K. C. Clarke, and G. L. Raines . In press. Modeling settlement patterns of the Late Classic Maya civilization with Bayesian methods and GIS. Annals of the Association of American Geographers (expected publication date 2009).  Google Scholar


A. Ford and S. L. Fedick . 1992. Prehistoric Maya Settlement Patterns in the Upper Belize River Area: Initial Results of the Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey. Journal of Field Archaeology 19:35–49. Google Scholar


A. Ford and D. C. Wernecke . 2002. Trails of El Pilar: A comprehensive guide to the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya flora and fauna. Exploring Solutions Past-The Maya Forest Alliance. Santa Barbara, CA. Google Scholar


G. W. Frankie, A. Mata, and S. B. Vinson . 2004. Biodiversity conservation in Costa Rica. University of California Press. Berkeley. Google Scholar


S. Gleissman 1978. The establishment of bracken following fire in tropical habitats. American Fern Journal 68:41–44. Google Scholar


S. Gleissman, E. M. García, and A. Amador . 1981. The ecological basis for the applications of traditional agriculture in the management of tropical agroecosystems. Agroecosystems 7:173–185. Google Scholar


A. Gómez-Pompa 1992. La conservación de la biodiversidad tropical: Obligaciones y responsabilidades. In México ante los retos de la biodiversidad. J. Sarakhán and R. Dirzo , editors. 259–267.Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. México. Google Scholar


A. Gómez-Pompa and D. Bainbridge . 1989. Agroforestry in the dry tropics: The Yucatec Maya. University of California-Riverside. Riverside. Google Scholar


A. Gómez-Pompa and A. Kaus . 1990. Traditional management of tropical forests in Mexico. In Alternatives to deforestation: Steps toward sustainable use of the Amazon rain forest. A. B. Anderson , editor. 45–64.Columbia University Press. New York. Google Scholar


A. Gómez-Pompa and A. Kaus . 1999. From prehispanic to future conservation alternatives: lessons from Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 96:5982–5986. Google Scholar


A. Gómez-Pompa, T. C. Whitmore, and M. Hadley , editors. 1991. Rain forest regeneration and management. Vol. 6, Man and the biosphere. Parthenon Publishing Group. Park Ridge, New Jersey. Google Scholar


J. L. Hamrick 2007. Population genetics of tropical trees. University of Georgia Department of Plant Biology. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


G. H. Haug, K. A. Hughen, D. M. Sigman, L. C. Peterson, and U. Rohl . 2001. Southward migration of the intertropical convergence zone through the Holocene. Science 293:1304–1308. Google Scholar


V. Hequet Pollen atlas of bat-pollinated plants of central French Guiana. New York Botanical Garden. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


G. Islebe, H. Hooghiemstra, M. Brenner, J. H. Curtis, and D. A. Hodell . 1996. A Holocene vegetation history from lowland Guatemala. The Holocene 6:265–271. Google Scholar


R. N. Jenkin, R. R. Innes, J. R. Dunsmore, S. H. Walker, C. J. Birchall, and J. S. Briggs . 1976. The agricultural development potential of the Belize Valley, Belize. Land Resource Study Vol. 24, Land Resources Division, Ministry of Overseas Development. Surrey, U.K. Google Scholar


G. D. Jones 1998. The conquest of the last Maya kingdom. University of Stanford Press. Stanford, CA. Google Scholar


J. Jones 1994. Pollen evidence for early settlement and agriculture in northern Belize. Palynology 18:205–211. Google Scholar


E. R. Kintz 1990. Life under the tropical canopy: Tradition and change among the Yucatec Maya. Case studies in cultural anthropology. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. Fort Worth. Google Scholar


J. D. H. Lambert and J. T. Arnarson . 1982. Ramon and Maya ruins: An ecological not an economic relation. Science 216:298–299. Google Scholar


J. D. H. Lambert and J. T. Arnarson . 1986. Nutrient dynamics in milpa agriculture and the role of weeds in initial stages of secondary succession in Belize, C.A. Journal Plant and Soil 93:303–322. Google Scholar


M. Lenzi, A. I. Orth, and T. M. Guerra . 2005. Pollination ecology of Momordica charantia L. (Cucurbitaceae) in Florianópolis, SC Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Botânica 28:505–513. Google Scholar


B. W. Leyden 2002. Pollen evidence for climatic variability and cultural disturbance in the Maya lowlands. Ancient Mesoamerica 13:85–101. Google Scholar


G. MacSwiney, M. C. P. Vilchis, L. F. M. Clarke, and P. A. Racey . 2006. The importance of cenotes in conserving bat assemblages in the Yucatan, Mexico. Biological Conservation 136:499–509. Google Scholar


D. J. Martins 2007. Pollination ecology of papaya (Carica papaya) on small-holder farms in Kenya. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


M. Mazzarelli 1977. Ancient Maya food producing systems in the upper Belize valley: Suggestions for strategies and implications for population. In. International symposium on Maya art, architecture, archaeology, and hieroglyphic writing. 63–81.Guatemala City, Guatemala. Google Scholar


M. Mazzarelli 1967. Ethnic composition and settlement in the upper Belize valley during the 19th century. Anthropology Department Colloquium, December. Williams College.  Google Scholar


MesoAmerican Research Center 2004. Forest Gardeners Speak. MesoAmerican Research Center, UCSB Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


M. Nepi and E. Pacini . 1993. Pollination, pollen viability and pistil receptivity in Cucurbita pepo. Annals of Botany 72:527–536. Google Scholar


R. R. Novick, C. W. Dick, M. R. Lemes, C. Navarro, A. Caccone, and E. Bermingham . 2003. Genetic structure of Mesoamerican populations of big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrphylla) inferred microsatellite analysis. Molecular Ecology 12:2885–2893. Google Scholar


Institute of Archaeology 2006. El Pilar management plan. National Institute of Culture and History. Belize, Belmopan. Google Scholar


S. Ortiz-Garcia, E. Ezcurra, B. Schoel, F. Acevedo, J. Soberon, and A. A. Snow . 2005. Absence of detectable transgenes in local landraces of maize in Oaxaca, Mexico (2003–2004). Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 102:12338–12343. Google Scholar


B. D. Parfitt and C. H. Pickett . 1980. Insect pollination of prickly pears (Opuntia: Cactaceae). Southwest Naturalist 25:104–107. Google Scholar


C. R. Peters 1983. Observations on Maya subsistence and the ecology of a tropical tree. American Antiquity 48:610–15. Google Scholar


D. Pimentel 2005. Environmental and economic costs of the application of pesticides primarily in the United States. Environment, Development and Sustainability 7:229–252. Google Scholar


Plants for a future 2007. Pachyrhizus tuberosus - (Lam.) Spreng. Jicama. Plants for a future: Edible, medicinal and useful plants for a healthier world. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


M. J. Plotkin and L. Famolare . 1992. Sustainable harvest and marketing of rain forest products. Conservation International. Washington, D.C. Google Scholar


D. E. Puleston 1973. Ancient Maya settlement and environment at Tikal, Guatemala: Implications for subsistence models Ph.D. Dissertation (Anthropology), University of Pennsylvannia, Philidelphia.  Google Scholar


D. S. Rice 1976. The historical ecology of lakes Yaxhá and Sacnab, El Petén, Guatemala Ph.D. Dissertation (Anthropology), Pennsylvania State University, University Park.  Google Scholar


D. W. Roubik, S. Sakai, and A. A. H. Karim , editors. 2005. Pollination ecology and the rain forest. Springer. New York. Google Scholar


K. Sather 1999. Food chain gang: If you don't give a hill of beans about native seeds, it's time to get with the SEARCH program. Tucson Weekly 08-12-1999.  Google Scholar


N. Schwartz 1990. Forest society. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia. Google Scholar


P. Sullivan 1978. Land, prestige, and conflict in a Belizean village. Paper read at Atlantic Culture Seminar, April 11, 1978.  Google Scholar


The Nature Conservancy 2007. The Maya Forest. Available at: (verified October 2007).  Google Scholar


J. E. S. S. Thompson 1988. The Maya of Belize: Historical chapters since Columbus. Cubola Productions. Belize. Google Scholar


P. B. Tomlinson 1990. The structural biology of palms. Oxford University Press. New York. Google Scholar


C. Tudge 2006. The tree: A natural history of what trees are, how they live, and why they matter. Crown Publishers. New York. Google Scholar


I. M. Turner 2001. The ecology of trees in the tropical rain forest. Cambridge Tropical Biology Series, Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. Google Scholar


A. Tzul 2001. 1st meeting of farming communities in the Maya forest for the design of an agroforestry model - El Pilar: Retrieving old traditions. Help for Progress. Belmopan, Belize. Google Scholar


A. Tzul 2007. Pollinators in the forest garden. Lecture Series: Conversations with traditional forest gardeners. Santa Barbara, October 13, 2007.  Google Scholar


A. M. Vanderwarker 2006. Farming, hunting, and fishing in the Olmec world. University of Texas Press. Austin. Google Scholar


E. C. Vohman 2006. Promotes the use of ramon in Central America. The Equilibrium Fund Available at: (verified July 2008).  Google Scholar


D. L. Webster 2002. The fall of the ancient Maya: Solving the mystery of the Maya collapse. Thames & Hudson. New York. Google Scholar


B. A. Whitlock, C. Bayer, and D. A. Baum . 2001. Phylogenetic relationships and floral evolution of the Byttnerioideae (“Sterculiaceae” or Malvaceae s.l.) based on sequences of the chloroplast gene, ndhF. Systematic Botany 26:420–437. Google Scholar


T. M. Whitmore and B. L. Turner . 2002. Cultivated landscapes of Middle America on the eve of the conquest. Oxford University Press. Oxford. Google Scholar


G. C. Wilken 1987. Good farmers: Traditional agricultural resource management in Mexico and Central America. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA. Google Scholar


J. Yaeger, M. C. Church, J. Dornan, and R. M. Leventhal . 2005. Investigating historic households: the 2003 season of the San Pedro Maya Project. In. Archaeological investigations in the eastern Maya lowlands: Papers of the 2003 Belize Archaeology Symposium. 257–267.Institute of Archaeology, National Institute of Culture and History. Belize, Belmopan. Google Scholar
Anabel Ford "Dominant Plants Of The Maya Forest And Gardens Of El Pilar: Implications For Paleoenvironmental Reconstructions," Journal of Ethnobiology 28(2), 179-199, (1 September 2008).
Published: 1 September 2008
ancient Maya
Economic botany
environmental reconstruction
forest management
Back to Top