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Maya Cities Had Unique Neotropical Forest Parks Says New Study

Maya Cities Had Unique Neotropical Forest Parks Says New Study


The Maya civilization was renowned for its progress in the fields of art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, and the calendar systems. Part of their highly developed architecture is missing even from contemporary urban centers. The Maya had roads, paved plazas, pyramids, temples, palaces and homes for its fast-growing population. But Maya cities, according to the latest high-tech LIDAR and environmental DNA research, also had scenic agricultural neotropical parks!

The findings of the new study suggest that ancient Maya city planning also encompassed scenic parks in the heart of city centers. Researchers from the University of Cincinnati (UC), studying the important ancient city of Tikal, published their research in Scientific Reports, in an open-access form in the online edition of  Nature.

An aerial view using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) shows the ancient layout of the Maya city of Tikal. The lidar image of the Tikal site core was courtesy of Francisco Estrada-Belli, MARI GIS Lab and the Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya-PACUNAM. Nicholas Dunning created the Mesoamerican inset map. David Lentz completed the overall final figure, as shown here. (Scientific Reports)

Maya Cities Re-examined With LIDAR and Environmental DNA

The focus of the recent research was to study the relationship between the Maya and surrounding neotropical forests using a new form of technological analysis called environmental DNA. An in-depth analysis of Tikal’s reservoirs, which were a critical source of drinking and usable water for the entire population, revealed that trees and wild vegetation were lined up in a planned manner in the middle of Tikal, most probably to provide scenic natural beauty but possibly also as useful “plant gardens.”

The Classic Maya period (250-850 AD) witnessed a huge population explosion, putting extra pressure on the existing water sources, particularly reservoirs. The study notes that until now, the land management practices of Mesoamerican societies and people are poorly understood in the context of the development of complex societies. “In the absence of specific evidence, the nature of the vegetation surrounding the reservoirs has been the subject of scientific hypotheses and artistic renderings for decades.”

“To address these hypotheses we captured homologous sequences of vascular plant DNA extracted from reservoir sediments by using a targeted enrichment approach involving 120-bp genetic probes. Our samples encompassed the time before, during and after the occupation of Tikal (1000 BCE–900 CE). Results indicate that the banks of the ancient reservoirs were primarily fringed with native tropical forest vegetation rather than domesticated species during the Maya occupation,” stated the researchers, led by David L. Lentz, palaeoethnobotanist and Professor of Biology at UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, write.

With the help of the Florida company Rapid Genomics, UC's scientists developed a novel way to select plant DNA in the sediment samples. Using Rapid Genomics’ DNA analysis technology, they were able to amplify small strands of DNA from chloroplasts, the plant structures where photosynthesis takes place. 

Then the researchers matched the ancient Tikal samples with the DNA of known plant species in much the same way that scientists amplify ribosomal DNA to identify species of bacteria, according to a release from University of Cincinnati.

Stratigraphic profile of the Tikal Palace Reservoir excavations showing Operations K, L and O. Collection locations for samples WA01, WA07 and WA08 are indicated on the profile as well as relevant AMS radiocarbon (14C) dates. The original drawing was prepared by Brian Lane. David Lentz created the final figure. (Scientific Reports)

The Researchers Identified 30 Species of Maya City Flora

The researchers were able to identify more than 30 species of trees, grasses, vines and flowering plants from over a 1,000 years ago, that were lined up along the banks of the reservoir. "Almost all of the city center was paved. That would get pretty hot during the dry season. So, it would make sense that they would have places that were nice and cool right along the reservoir," Professor Lentz said. “It must have been beautiful to look at with the water and trees and a welcome place for the kings and their families to go."

However, instead of the way modern parks and centers around it are created, where specific trees are planted and lined up in rows, the researchers discovered that the forest around the reservoir was left undisturbed. Since rain was not a perennial occurrence, naturally occurring rainforest provided a form of security against erosion and allowed for the flourishing of medicinal plants and herbs, which were an integral part of all indigenous cultures.

An image of ramon or breadnut fruit on the forest floor taken at the Maya archaeological site of El Pilar, Belize. Ramon was also found at the Tikal Maya city reservoir according to the recent Scientific Reports study. (Congobongo1041 / Public domain)

A variety of plants were identified along the aquifers, including very tall ones like cabbage bark, and ramon (breadnut or Brosimum alicastrum), which rise up to 100 feet (30.48 meters) and are actually rainforest dominant in places like Guatemala. "Why you would find ramón around the reservoir is a curiosity. The answer is they left this forest intact. Tikal has a harsh climate. It's pretty tough to survive when you don't get rain for five months of the year. This reservoir would have been the font of their lives. So, they sometimes would protect these places by not cutting down the trees and preserving a sacred grove,” added Professor Lentz.

The area of the park would not have been more than 50 x 50 meters (164 X 164 feet) but would have put most modern urban planned parks to shame. The level of greenery was unprecedented precisely because forest land was left undisturbed even in parks. 

Microbiologists Alison Weiss, a professor in UC's College of Medicine, and Trinity Hamilton, now with the University of Minnesota, took up the task of analyzing ancient microbial DNA from the reservoir's sediment samples. "The DNA is ancient so it tends to be degraded with short little sequences. The analysis was quite challenging because we were the first to do this. Bacterial ribosomal DNA has a database. There was no database for this. We had to take sequences one by one and search the general database to find the best match,” said the researchers.

A significant portion of the project was a shot in the dark, so as to speak. To get a picture of the vegetation surrounding Tikal’s reservoirs was a huge step forward, and this model of environmental DNA analysis is extremely promising. In fact, moving forward, they hope to be able to apply this science to other Maya city sites in the future. 

Top image: The ruins of Tikal, Guatemala where the latest research on Maya cities has used revolutionary environmental DNA or plant DNA to understand what Maya agriculture and plant relationships were like before the civilization faded into the jungle.                                                      Source: Ai / Adobe Stock

By Rudra Bhushan


Lentz, D.L., Hamilton, T.L., Dunning, N.P.  et al. 2021. Environmental DNA reveals arboreal cityscapes at the Ancient Maya Center of TikalSci Rep 1112725. Available at:

Miller, M. 2021.  Did the ancient Maya have parks? Available at:

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I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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