Forest Conservation Practiced by the Ancient Maya?

The ancient Maya civilization of Central South America apparently understood acutely how their fate was inextricably linked with that of the forest around them. New research at the site of Tikal in modern Guatemala, by a team from the University of Cincinnati led by paleoethnobotanist David Lentz, has discovered that during the Classic period (c. 250 AD to 900 AD), the Maya practiced a form of forest conservation. Further, the team have speculated that when the practice ceased, it may have had grave consequences for Maya society.

They were not allowed to cut down what were calling the sacred groves, says Lentz, speaking to Journal of Archaeological Science. From our research we have learned that the Maya were deliberately conserving forest resources. Their deliberate conservation practices can be observed in the wood they used for construction and this observation is reinforced by the pollen record.

The practice appears to have been abandoned in the Late Classic period, with the ascendancy of a powerful new leader, Jasaw Chan Kawiil. The Tikal Maya had been beaten up and had fallen to second-rate status prior to his ascendancy, Lentz explains. Jasaw Chan Kawiil led an army to the heartland of a competing city, Calakmul, captured their ruler, bound him, brought him back and sacrificed him and it totally reversed their fortunes in a very dramatic way.

The Maya forests provided timber, fuel, food, fiber and medicine in addition to the ecosystem services of cleansing the air and water. — Professor David Lentz, University of Cincinnati.

The Tikal Maya were top dogs again, and they decided to reflect it in the building of spectacular new temples that required very specific types of long, straight trees able to bear the weight of thousands of tones of stones. The sacred groves some of which contained stands of timber as old as 200 years were plundered, to the extent that new copses had to be planted altogether sometime prior to the building of the final temple, Temple III or Temple of the Jaguar Priest, around 810 AD.

By that stage, things had started to go awry for the Tikal Maya again, and the whole city was abandoned by around the 10th century. Why so? Perhaps, suggests Lentz, because the delicate balance of the forest eco-system had been upset by such heavy deforestation, which was further accelerated by the Maya cutting down trees for firewood and choking the air with carbon dioxide.

When you clear all the forests, it changes the hydrologic cycle, says Lentz. The world is like a flat surface with all the trees acting as sponges on it. The trees absorb the water. Without the trees, there is no buffer to stop the water from runoff. That causes soil erosion, which then chokes the rivers and streams. With no trees, you lose water retention in the soil or aquifers so the ground dries up and then there is less transpiration, so therefore less rainfall as well.

Naturally, there are important lessons to be learned by the Tikal Maya experience. Forests provide many benefits to society, says Lentz. The Maya forests provided timber, fuel, food, fiber and medicine in addition to the ecosystem services of cleansing the air and water. Just as forests provided essential resources for the ancient Maya, the same is true for our civilization today.

The University of Cincinnati teams research is the first major work carried out at Tikal in over 40 years, and is unique in that it is focused on the economic, agricultural, social and cultural practices of the Maya, rather than the fate and fortunes of the ruling classes, as is often the norm. They plan to return to the site in February 2010, and hopefully find some answers as to when deforestation occurred, what trees were used when and where the sacred groves were located.

Tikal picture (top) by Hansjoerg Klein; Tikal picture (bottom) by Reinhard Jahn, c/o Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.