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The Maya Forest: Destroyed or cultivated by the ancient Maya?

January 8, 2010
107 (3) 953-954
Research Article
Evidence disputing deforestation as the cause for the collapse of the ancient Maya polity of Copan, Honduras
Cameron L. McNeil, David A. Burney, Lida Pigott Burney
Both academic and popular perceptions concerning the relationship between the Maya (ancient and modern) and the Maya Forest in which their culture developed and persisted for more than three millennia are varied and continuously subject to change (1). The analysis of a sediment core from a pond located near the ancient Maya city of Copan, Honduras, interpreted by McNeil et al. (2) in this issue of PNAS, offers a unique perspective on long-term interactions between the Maya and their environment. The results of this study demonstrate how refinement of methods and extension of time frames can provide dramatic reinterpretations of scenarios that have become engrained in both academic and popular perceptions about the Maya. Whereas the pollen analysis presented and interpreted by McNeil et al. (2) cannot be expected to provide a full picture of the Maya Forest and how it may have been managed, it does provide sound and convincing evidence that the Late Classic Maya at Copan did not foolishly strip away the forest and destroy their environment as portrayed in Jared Diamond’s best-selling book (3) and taught in our children’s classrooms. Among academics, we generally recognize that the results of our research represent what we hope to be the best interpretation of currently available data, and that our interpretations will be subject to modifications as new data and methods are developed. At the same time, our initial interpretations, often based on very limited data, are picked up and amplified in the public realm through books and movies that influence audiences a thousand-fold greater than the readers of our obscure academic publications. I was recently a reviewer for California Education and the Environment Curriculum for seventh grade classes that would be taught about the rise and fall of Pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, with a strong focus on the ancient Maya. One of the primary lessons in the curriculum was how the ancient Maya exemplified uncontrolled destruction of the environment and the consequent collapse of their civilization. This lesson was based in large part on the earlier interpretation of a sediment core from Copan (4). Dramatic swings in our interpretations concerning the historical ecology of the Maya Lowlands will continue, at least until enough studies, such as the one presented by McNeil et al. (2), are conducted and published.
Use of pollen to reconstruct major changes in plant communities and the environments that they represent has provided valuable information about long-term climate patterns for the planet and resulting impacts on biologic communities over broad regions. The use of pollen to reconstruct local historical ecology, however, has many obstacles to overcome, particularly when humans are agents of environmental manipulation. We still have a great deal of research to conduct before we can provide definitive answers about what past environments looked like when humans were involved.
The Late Classic Maya at Copan did not foolishly strip away the forest.

Indigenous Food Plants of the Maya Lowlands

It is encouraging that McNeil et al. (2) recognize that increases in forest cover, as indicated in the pollen of a sediment core, may represent intentional manipulation of the forest in the form of forest farming and the cultivation of tree crops in home gardens. The interpretations offered by McNeil et al. (2) also make an important contribution to the growing recognition that the increase and decrease of maize pollen in sediment records is not necessarily the only or best measure of plant cultivation for the Maya. A review of literature on Maya ethnobotany (e.g., refs. 58) reveals that the Maya of recent times make use of more than 500 species of food plants that are indigenous to the Maya Lowlands, supplemented by many additional species that have been introduced from farther north in Mesoamerica or from South America, very likely in Pre-Columbian times. These food plants range across 92 different taxonomic families.
As presented in the pollen diagram (2), the increase in pollen from pine trees (Podocarpus sp.) during the Late Classic population maximum is strong evidence that the Copan Maya were managing those trees, most likely as a valued source of firewood. It is also of interest to note that, after a period of apparent deforestation during Preclassic times, pollen from trees in the order Urticales increases and then remains relatively stable throughout the Maya Classic period and beyond. Urticales include species that may have been important food producers for the ancient Maya, including ramon (Brosimum alicastrum), which has been suggested as a staple crop, and 22 other species that produce edible berries, nuts, buds, or fruit (Brosimum spp., Castilla elastica, Cecropia spp., Celtis spp., Chlorphora tinctoria, Ficus spp., Pourouma aspera, and Trema micrantha). For the other taxonomic groups of trees and shrubs listed in the pollen diagram (2), six of the seven families (all but Myricaceae) contain food plants, including the separately listed genus Acromia sp. and Hedysomum mexicanum. The Chamaedorea-type pollen in the diagram (2) could include five species of food-producing palms, such as the pacaya palm (C. pacaya or C. tepejilote), which is cultivated commercially today for its edible male inflorescences.
Among the herbs in the pollen diagram (2), only the genus Spermacoce is not a known food plant for the Maya. The herbaceous Cheno/Ams (combined families Chenopodiaceae and Amaranthaceae) include at least eight species with edible seeds and/or leaves, whereas the Poaceae family includes four species besides maize that are known to be used as food, and the Polygonaceae family includes six species of shrubs, vines, and small trees that produce edible fruit or roots.
For the aquatics listed in the pollen diagram (2), the Cyperaceae family includes foods such as the tubers of chufa or yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) and the roots of the Caribbean spike-rush (Eleocharis caribaea). The Typha sp. (cattail) listed in the diagram, although not identified as a food plant for the ethnographic Maya, is widely used as an important food source in many cultures around the world. The spore-producing plants listed as Pteridophyte psilate monolete can include two species of ferns (Microgramma lycopodioides and Acrostichum aureum) recognized by the Maya as having edible shoots.

Under-Representation of Food Plants in the Pollen Record

In the pollen diagram developed from the Copan sediment core (2), nearly all of the broad taxonomic categories of plants used as indicators of both disturbance and forestation could include species known to have been used as food by the Maya and were likely to have been managed as subsistence resources. The pollen record, however, has severe limitations when we try to evaluate the contribution of forest management and polycultural home gardening to ancient Maya subsistence. Many, if not most, of the indigenous food plants used by the Maya would be invisible in the pollen record of sediment cores. Virtually all of the pollen represented in sediment cores is windborne, whereas most of the species of food plants used by the Maya are pollinated by animals. A recent article by Ford (9) considers this phenomenon in detail, making use of data collected from 18 forest gardens cultivated by Maya in west-central Belize. Ford’s study finds that, of the 20 dominant species from the forest that are also cultivated in the gardens, only one (ramon, Brosimum alicastrum) is wind pollinated, whereas the others are pollinated by bats, beetles, bees, moths, and various insects (9). For the 37 species of cultivated plants that dominate in the gardens, only seven species are pollinated by wind (9).

Three Millennia of Forest Management

It is important that we recognize biases in the methods used to reconstruct the historical ecology of the Maya Lowlands and that we continue in the development of new methods and alternative strategies for assessing how the ancient Maya managed or mismanaged the Maya Forest. The pollen analysis presented and interpreted by McNeil et al. (2) does not imply that the ancient Maya were perfect stewards of the forest. We now have many documented cases of apparently human-induced local environmental degradation, particularly for the Preclassic period (e.g., refs. 10 and 11). What needs to be more widely recognized is that the ancient Maya, despite occasional episodes of local mismanagement, have survived and adapted for more than a hundred generations without wide-scale destruction of their forest.


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J Diamond Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, New York, 2005).
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Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 107 | No. 3
January 19, 2010
PubMed: 20080595


    Submission history

    Published online: January 8, 2010
    Published in issue: January 19, 2010


    See companion article on page 1017.



    Scott L. Fedick1 [email protected]
    Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521


    Author contribution: S.L.F. wrote the paper.

    Competing Interests

    The author declares no conflict of interest.

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      The Maya Forest: Destroyed or cultivated by the ancient Maya?
      Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
      • Vol. 107
      • No. 3
      • pp. 949-1254







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