Our project focused on the long-term spatial and temporal dynamics of land-use management, agricultural decision making, and patterns of resource availability in the tropical lowlands of Central America. The project combined diachronic environmental simulation with analysis of historic settlement patterns and environmental surveys to address a series of long-standing questions about the coupled natural and human history in the Central Maya lowlands, with special emphasis given to the UNESCO world heritage site of Tikal in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. We examined changing patterns of land, water, population, settlement, and political history for a 3,000-year period using climate, soil, and hydrologic modeling and time-series spatial analysis of population and settlement.
The critical period of our study, 1000 BC to AD 2000, begins with dispersed settlements accompanied by widespread deforestation and soil erosion. Population size and density grew rapidly for 800 years, while deforestation and erosion rates declined. This period was also characterized by striking evidence of political evolution, including the construction of monumental architecture, hieroglyphic carvings detailing wars and alliances, and the construction of a defensive earthwork feature that signaled political territories, and possibly delineated natural resource boundaries. Population decline and steady reforestation followed until modern migration into the region. Building on previous research by ourselves and other researchers in the region we modeled the 3,000-year history of the region, comparing land and water availability to population distributions and examining what is known about political history. We also analyzed the spatial patterns of land and water availability under simulated extreme climate conditions (e.g., hurricanes and droughts), thereby addressing modern issues of migration and water availability and the possible impact of climate events on the cultural history of the Ancient Maya.
This project was a pilot study conducted to scale up and contribute to understandings of long-term environmental change, agrarian decision making, settlement patterns, and critical issues facing smallholder agrarian communities. In the process, we added some important details to one of the most compelling landscape narratives of coupled human and natural history, the rise and fall of the Maya in the lowland tropical forest of Central America. Uniquely we employed a new approach for studying these issues, integrating coupled climate, soil, and hydrologic modeling with traditional anthropological research methods.