22 April 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

Maya Farmers May Have Planned Population Growth Contrary to Thought

Contrary to what was thought, Maya farmers may have planned for population growth, says a new study.

According to a Brown University press release, Andrew Scherer of Brown University and Charles Golden of Brandeis University, together with their colleagues, undertook a lidar survey of a stretch of the Western Maya Lowlands on the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

“It’s exciting to talk about the really large populations that the Maya maintained in some places; to survive for so long with such density was a testament to their technological accomplishments,” Scherer said. “But it’s important to understand that that narrative doesn’t translate across the whole of the Maya region. People weren’t always living cheek to jowl. Some areas that had the potential for agricultural development were never even occupied.”

The Maya urban centers of Piedras Negras, La Mar, and Lacanja Tzeltal, the capital of the kingdom of Sak Tz’i’, are located in this region.

Scherer explained that all three kingdoms were governed by an ajaw, or a lord — positioning them as equals, in theory. But Piedras Negras, the largest kingdom, was led by a k’uhul ajaw, a “holy lord,” a special honorific not claimed by the lords of La Mar and Sak Tz’i’. La Mar and Sak Tz’i’ weren’t exactly equal peers, either: While La Mar was much more populous than the Sak T’zi’ capital Lacanjá Tzeltal, the latter was more independent, often switching alliances and never appearing to be subordinate to other kingdoms, suggesting it had greater political autonomy.

The lidar showed evidence of expansive irrigation channels across the region. The depression with dark soil shows the remains of an ancient channel.
The lidar showed evidence of expansive irrigation channels across the region. The depression with dark soil shows the remains of an ancient channel.

The lidar survey showed that, despite their differences, these three kingdoms boasted one major similarity: agriculture that yielded a food surplus.

“What we found in the lidar survey points to strategic thinking on the Maya’s part in this area,” Scherer said. “We saw evidence of long-term agricultural infrastructure in an area with relatively low population density — suggesting that they didn’t create some crop fields late in the game as a last-ditch attempt to increase yields, but rather that they thought a few steps ahead.”

Remote sensing technology indicated that between A.D. 350 and 900, the Maya built irrigation channels and terraces in and around the region’s towns, despite no indications of comparable expansion in the population centers.

The lidar indicated signals of “agricultural intensification” — the alteration of land to boost the volume and predictability of crop production — in all three kingdoms. In ancient Maya kingdoms, where maize was the principal crop, agricultural intensification strategies included constructing terraces and developing water control systems with dams and channeled fields. The lidar, which penetrated the often-dense jungle, revealed substantial terracing and vast irrigation systems across the region, indicating that these kingdoms were not only prepared for population increase but also likely had food surpluses every year.

The research team surveyed a small area in the Western Maya Lowlands situated at today’s border between Mexico and Guatemala, shown in context here.
The research team surveyed a small area in the Western Maya Lowlands situated at today’s border between Mexico and Guatemala, shown in context here.

Maya farmers, the researchers explained, may have intended to produce surplus crops and prepare for population growth. Surplus food may have been sold in marketplaces as staples or as prepared food, Scherer added.

Today, Scherer said, significant parts of the region are being cleared for cattle ranching and palm oil plantations. But in areas where people still raise corn and other crops, they report that they have three harvests a year — and it’s likely that those high yields may be due in part to the channeling and other modifications that the ancient Maya made to the landscape.

“In conversations about contemporary climate or ecological crises, the Maya are often brought up as a cautionary tale: ‘They screwed up; we don’t want to repeat their mistakes,’” Scherer said. “But maybe the Maya were more forward-thinking than we give them credit for. Our survey shows there’s a good argument to be made that their agricultural practices were very much sustainable.”

The research group’s findings were published in the journal Remote Sensing.

Cover Photo: Lidar scans of the research area revealed the relative density of structures in Piedras Negras, La Mar, and Lacanjá Tzeltal, providing hints at these cities’ respective populations and food needs. The Brown University

The Brown University

Related Articles

Remnants of ancient fire temple discovered in heart of Alborz mountains in Iran

26 June 2021

26 June 2021

An Iranian archaeology team has discovered relics of an ancient fire temple in Savadkuh county, located in the center of...

A secret chamber has been found in the famous Gorham Cave Complex

29 September 2021

29 September 2021

A cave chamber sealed off by sand for some 40,000 years has been discovered in Vanguard Cave inside the Gorham’s...

Japan’s possibly oldest stone molds for bronze casting discovered at Yoshinogari ruins

4 December 2023

4 December 2023

At the Yoshinogari Ruins in the western prefecture of Saga, relics including stone casting molds for bronze artifacts have been...

Archaeologists have unearthed two early Aksumite Churches in Africa

11 December 2022

11 December 2022

New discoveries in the port city of Adulis on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast show that two ancient churches discovered more...

A former Spanish disco-pub confirmed as lost medieval Synagogue

11 February 2023

11 February 2023

In the Andalucian city of Utrera, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a 14th-century synagogue. The discovery, made public on...

Archaeologists Discovered the Largest Inscription Ever Found in Sri Lanka

10 February 2024

10 February 2024

Archaeologists discovered the largest inscription ever found in Sri Lanka. The largest inscription ever discovered in Sri Lanka was found...

A new study in Portugal suggests that mummification in Europe may be older than previously thought

3 March 2022

3 March 2022

New research on the hunter-gatherer burial sites in the Sado Valley in Portugal, dating to 8,000 years ago, suggests that...

Thousands of Ancient Tombs Discovered in Xian

23 February 2021

23 February 2021

According to the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeological Institute, more than 4,600 ancient cultural remains were discovered during the expansion project of...

27,000-year-old Pendants made from giant sloths suggest earlier arrival of people in the Americas

16 July 2023

16 July 2023

Archaeologists discovered three pendants made from the bony material of an extinct giant sloth in a rock shelter in central...

Multiple Burials found at Çatalhöyük

17 September 2021

17 September 2021

Multiple burials were unearthed during the ongoing excavations in the house on the eastern mound of the Neolithic settlement Çatalhöyük....

Battle of the Egadi Islands: Rome’s deadly weapons discovered off Sicily

3 September 2021

3 September 2021

Underwater archaeologists from the Soprintendenza del Mare Regione Siciliana, RPM Nautical Foundation, and the Society for the Documentation of Submerged...

Archaeologists have discovered a large-sized 4,000-Year-Old steppe pyramid of the Bronze Age in Kazakhstan

10 August 2023

10 August 2023

Archaeologists of L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University discovered a massive Bronze Age steppe pyramid associated with a horse cult...

A mosaic made by the freed slave to thank God was found in the church excavation

10 January 2022

10 January 2022

During the season excavation of the 6th-century Holy Apostles Church, located in an orange grove in the Arsuz district of...

Mine-clearance divers discovered an ancient shipwreck dating from the 3rd century BC

25 June 2023

25 June 2023

As a result of collaborative training exercises between Croatian and Italian naval mine-clearance divers, one of the earliest fully preserved...

A fragment with the oldest Syriac translation of the New Testament discovered

7 April 2023

7 April 2023

A researcher from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with the help of ultraviolet photography, was able to discover a small...