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Ancient Maya canals and fields show early and extensive impacts on tropical forests

Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2019. 5:25 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Geographical research at The University of Texas at Austin, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points to earlier-than-believed human-guided alteration of the ecosystems within globally important tropical forests in Belize.

The Maya population living here expanded their agricultural practices to wetlands in response to population and environmental pressures, potentially increasing atmospheric CO2 and methane through burn events and farming

Researchers investigated the Birds of Paradise wetland field complex, five times larger than previously discovered, and uncovered an even larger such complex in Belizean territory. This improves on the evidence for an early and more extensive Anthropocene — the period when human activity began to greatly affect Earth’s environment.

Lead author Tim Beach hypothesizes that, “These large and complex wetland networks may have changed climate long before industrialization, and these may be the answer to the long-standing question of how a great rainforest civilization fed itself.”

The Maya acted by converting forests to wetland field complexes and digging canals to manage water quality and quantity, it is believed, to counter rising sea levels from 1 to 3 thousand years ago and droughts between 900 and 1200 years ago. Co-author Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach states that the Maya would have to be careful with water quality to maintain productivity and human health.

Similarly, the researchers posit the Maya responded to large population shifts and changing demands for food production during the Late Preclassic to the Early Postclassic — about 1,800 to 1,000 years ago — by expanding their network of fields and canals in areas accessible by canoe to the broader Maya world. Within the fields, the researchers uncovered evidence of multiple ancient food species, such as maize, as well as animal shells and bones, indicating widespread protein harvesting.

The researchers hypothesized that expanding the wetland complexes added atmospheric CO2, through burning events; and methane, through the creation of wetland farming. Indeed, the largest premodern increase of methane, from 2,000 to 1,000 years ago, coincides with the rise of Maya wetland networks, as well as those in South America and China.

“Even these small changes may have warmed the planet, which provides a sobering perspective for the order of magnitude greater changes over the last century that are accelerating into the future,” Beach said.

The researchers hypothesize the Maya wetland footprint could be even larger and undiscernible due to modern plowing, aggradation and draining. Additional research on the region and its surrounding areas is already revealing the extent of wetland networks and how the Maya used them, painting a bigger picture of the Maya’s possible global role in the Early Anthropocene.

“Understanding agricultural subsistence is vital for understanding past complex societies and how they affected the world we live in today,” Beach said. “Our findings add to the evidence for early and extensive human impacts on the global tropics, and we hypothesize the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane from burning, preparing and maintaining these field systems contributed to the Early Anthropocene.”

 

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