Ancient Maya Canals and Fields Show Early and Extensive Impacts on Tropical Forests


Additional research on the region and its surrounding areas is already revealing the extent of wetland networks and how the Maya used them.

New evidence in Belize shows the ancient Maya responded to population and environmental pressures by creating massive agricultural features in wetlands, potentially increasing atmospheric CO2 and methane through burn events and farming, according to geographical research at The University of Texas at Austin published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prior research proposed that the Maya’s advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered ecosystems within globally important tropical forests. But in the first study to combine airborne lidar (light detection and ranging) imagery with excavation and dating evidence in wetlands, researchers found the Birds of Paradise wetland field complex to be five times larger than previously discovered and found another, even larger, wetland field complex in Belize.

Altogether, the study shows the Maya had “earlier, more intensive and more wide-ranging anthropogenic impacts” on globally important tropical forests than previously known, adding to the evidence for an early and more extensive Anthropocene — the period when human activity began to greatly affect Earth’s environment.

“We now are beginning to understand the full human imprint of the Anthropocene in tropical forests,” said Tim Beach, the study’s lead author, who holds the C.B. Smith, Sr. Centennial Chair. “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.”

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Image via University of Texas at Austin