Land use strategies of the ancient Maya in seasonally dry tropical forest ecosystems of the Yucatan Peninsula

Bermingham, Adam (2020) Land use strategies of the ancient Maya in seasonally dry tropical forest ecosystems of the Yucatan Peninsula. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Abstract

Throughout the history of human-environmental interactions in Central America, the ancient Maya are one of the most contested regarding the extent to which their land-use strategies degraded their environment. For over 3500 years, the ancient Maya manipulated plant communities by promoting economically important species and removing those that had little use. These strategies potentially impacted the modern forests of Central America, by creating a legacy of economically important species in the modern assemblages. Along with the promotion of useful species, the ancient Maya also consistently introduced fire into ecosystems that would have limited natural exposure and to some extent removed forest vegetation for settlement structures. It is this extent of forest removal that remains one of the most contentious aspects of our understanding of ancient Maya land-use strategies. Palaeoecological records (fossil pollen evidence) throughout Central America shows a strong signal for extensive forest cover removal (declining arboreal pollen) and maize agriculture, leading many to suggest these processes were closely related to population pressures and food demand. These signals for supposed deforestation have been added to a pre-existing link between climate drying and societal collapse (ca 750-1100 CE), leading many to suggest that extensive environmental degradation was one of the major drivers of the collapse of the Classic Maya Civilisation. Whilst the evidence for intensive drought is founded in robust palaeoclimate records throughout Central America and the evidence for the societal decline is well documented across many settlements throughout the region, the evidence for deforestation is not yet as well established. To date, the majority of records that interpret these phases of deforestation are located in assumed high population density centres. These sites are then often extrapolated to the entirety of the ancient Maya society, resulting in little attention being paid to how different types of settlements may have interacted with the forest environment.

Here we show two new palaeoecological investigations from lower-density settlements, with one being the first palaeoecological representation of ancient Maya land-use from an island site. Pollen and charcoal records were used to determine changes in vegetation and the fire regime associated with ancient Maya land-use from the seasonally dry tropical forested ecosystems of the Yucatan Peninsula. Comparisons between an inland (Laguna Esmeralda) and island (Ambergris Caye) reveal similarities regarding the extent in which the forest was impacted by periods of cultivation, but also differences regarding how activities changed in response to periods of drought. This research presents two new chronological baselines for Zea mays cultivation on the mainland (5.5 kyr cal. BP) and the island (4.8 kyr cal. BP) showing these regions were actively managed long before previously suggested. In addition to the long-term records of ancient Maya land-use, a series of surface samples from Laguna Esmeralda and the adjacent Lake Chichancanab to uncover how the modern forest is represented in these two different sized lakes and aid in the interpretation of the palaeoecological records.

Using these interpretations of ancient Maya land-use from lower-density settlements, this research shows that the aforementioned hypothesis of extreme environmental degradation likely only represents a perspective from higher-density settlements. The strong associations between periods of land-use and drought conditions are prominent during the Terminal Classic Period (750/1000 CE), where clear reductions in arboreal pollen are interpreted to reflect localised forest clearances and intensification of cultivation around a valuable water resource. Further adaptions to drought periods are also evident from Ambergris Caye, with combined previous archaeological and current palaeoecological evidence showing the use of mixed resources during the Preclassic Abandonment Period (~250 CE). Ambergris Caye acted as a climate refuge for the ancient Maya, providing a new lens of analysis for understanding ancient Maya adaptions to instability and showing the importance of island sites in the wider perspective of the ancient Maya civilisation.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Ancient Maya, Palaeoecology, Land-use, Yucatan Peninsula, Climate change
Subjects: F800 Physical and Terrestrial Geographical and Environmental Sciences
Department: Faculties > Engineering and Environment > Geography and Environmental Sciences
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 03 Feb 2021 11:10
Last Modified: 03 Feb 2021 11:18
URI: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/45358

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