Six ways ancient Maya still alter the environment

"Most popular sources talk about the Anthropocene and human impacts on climate since the industrial revolution, but we are looking at a deeper history," says Tim Beach. (Credit: "Maya ruins" via Shutterstock)

Activities of the Maya 2,000 years ago in Central America contributed to the decline of their environment. New research finds evidence of their influence on today’s environmental conditions, as well.

It’s the first study to show the full extent of the “Mayacene” as a microcosm of the early Anthropocene—a period when human activity began greatly affecting environmental conditions.

“Most popular sources talk about the Anthropocene and human impacts on climate since the industrial revolution, but we are looking at a deeper history,” says lead author Tim Beach, professor of geography and the environment at the University of Texas at Austin. “Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans’ impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer.”

By looking at Maya impacts on climate, vegetation, hydrology, and lithosphere from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago, researchers propose that the Maya’s advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered ecosystems within globally important tropical forests.

Six ‘spikes’

The researchers identified six stratigraphic markers—or “golden spikes”—that indicate a time of large-scale change, including: “Maya clay” rocks; unique soil sequences; carbon isotope ratios; widespread chemical enrichment; building remains and landscape modifications; and signs of Maya-induced climate change.

“These spikes give us insight into how and why Mayas interacted with their environment, as well as the scope of their activity,” says coauthor Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, chair of the department of geography and the environment.

[Did this 1945 nuclear test trigger the Anthropocene?]

Maya clay and soil sequences indicated erosion, human land-use changes, and periods of instability. Soil profiles near wetlands revealed heightened carbon isotope ratios due to agriculture and corn production; and researchers note a three- to fourfold increase in phosphorus throughout Maya-age sediments.

However, the most visual indication of human impact was found in building material remains and landscape modifications. Researchers believe that these clues reveal how the Maya used water management to adapt to climate change.

“In studying the wetland systems, we were surprised to find a combination of human and natural contributions,” Luzzadder-Beach says. “Geochemical changes indicated that some wetlands were natural, while others were built landscapes used to grow crops away from the large population.”

Good and bad changes

“Historically, it’s common for people to talk about the bad that happened with past environmental changes, such as erosion and climate change from deforestation,” Beach says. “But we can learn a lot from how Maya altered their environment to create vast field systems to grow more crops and respond to rising sea levels.”

[Monument tells tale of Maya ‘snake queen’]

While some studies suggest that deforestation and other land use contributed to warming and drying of the regional climate by the Classic Period (1,700-1,100 years ago), many existing forests are still influenced by Maya activities, with many structures, terraces, and wetlands still existing today, researchers say.

“This work speaks to the deep history and complexity of human interactions with nature, and in a part of the world where we still have little knowledge about the natural environment,” Beach says.

Funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, UT Austin, and Georgetown University supported the work, which appears early online in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Source: University of Texas at Austin