The environmental impact of the Maya civilization is still visible today
A new study has found that the Maya civilization of Central America had a considerable impact on the surrounding environment, the effects of which are still visible. Activity from 2,000 years ago contributed to the decline and continues to influence us today.
Many Maya structures can still be seen to this day including the Temple of Kukulkan in the city of Chichen Itza in the southern Mexican state of Yucatan. Kukulkan was the feathered serpent, the Maya snake deity. Maya civilization was also known for the development of the Maya script, the only Mesoamerican writing system to be deciphered thus far.
The Temple of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Rodolfo Araiza G. / Flickr)
Researchers from the University of Texas constructed the study from a synthesis of old and new data. They believe that the ‘Mayacene’ could be interpreted as a microcosm of today’s ‘Anthropocene’, in that it was a period when human activity began to significantly affect the environment. The team analyzed the behaviour of the Maya and its impacts on climate, vegetation, hydrology and lithosphere – the rock and soil – from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago. They found that the Maya infrastructure impacted the ecosystems in the surrounding forest. These impacts can be identified through six markers, known as ‘golden spikes’, which indicate large-scale change. These include rocks of “Maya Clay”, unique soil sequences, carbon isotope ratios, widespread chemical enrichment, building remains and landscape modifications. There are also signs of Maya-induced climate change.
Maya ruins in the tropical jungle. (Wikimedia Commons) The latest study analyzed the behaviour of the Maya and its impacts on climate, vegetation, hydrology, rocks and soil from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago.
“These spikes give us insight into how and why Mayas interacted with their environment, as well as the scope of their activity” said Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, co-author and chair of the Department of Geography and the Environment. “In studying the wetland systems, we were surprised to find a combination of human and natural contributions. Geochemical changes indicated that some wetlands were natural, while others were built landscapes used to grow crops away from the large population.”
Beach added that historically it’s common for people to talk about bad things that happened with past environmental change, such as erosion and climate change caused by deforestation. However, the way in which the Maya altered their environment in order to create vast field systems, as a response to rising sea levels, can teach us a lot. Some studies suggest that deforestation and other land-use changes contributed to warming and drying of the regional climate during the Classic Period, 1,700 to 1,100 years ago. Many of today’s forests are still affected by these activities and many of the features from that period, such as structures, terraces and wetlands, remain in existence to this day.
Many environmental changes were brought about by the construction of their large cities, like this city of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico (Wikipedia)
The Maya Clay and soil sequences provide an indication of soil erosion, land-use changes and periods of instability. In particular, soil profiles near wetlands reveal enlarged carbon isotope ratios resulting from agriculture and corn production. The researchers also noted a three to four-fold increase in phosphorus throughout the sediments dating from the Maya period. However, the most visual impact is in the form of building material remains and landscape modification. The researchers believe this indicates Maya water management processes used by the civilization to adapt to a period of climate change.
Lead researcher on the study, Professor of Geography and the Environment Tim Beach, said that most popular sources discuss the Anthropocene, involving human impacts on the climate since the Industrial Revolution. However, we are actually looking at a deeper history when we consider human impact on the planet.
“Though it has no doubt accelerated in the last century, humans' impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer” said Professor Beach, speaking to The Daily Mail.
The team will publish the study shortly, entitled “Ancient Maya impacts on the Earth's surface: An Early Anthropocene analog?” in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.
Featured image: Copy of Bonampak Painting in Chetumal. This is an artist's copy of a mural at the Temple of the Murals at Bonampak, a Maya archaeological site. (Wikimedia Commons).