Ancient Maya wetland fields revealed under tropical forest canopy from laser scanning and multiproxy evidence
Timothy Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Samantha Krause, Tom Guderjan, Fred Valdez Jr., Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz, Sara Eshleman, and Colin Doyle
PNAS first published October 7, 2019 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1910553116
We report on a large area of ancient Maya wetland field systems in Belize, Central America, based on airborne lidar survey coupled with multiple proxies and radiocarbon dates that reveal ancient field uses and chronology. The lidar survey indicated four main areas of wetland complexes, including the Birds of Paradise wetland field complex that is five times larger than earlier remote and ground survey had indicated, and revealed a previously unknown wetland field complex that is even larger. The field systems date mainly to the Maya Late and Terminal Classic (∼1,400–1,000 y ago), but with evidence from as early as the Late Preclassic (∼1,800 y ago) and as late as the Early Postclassic (∼900 y ago). Previous study showed that these were polycultural systems that grew typical ancient Maya crops including maize, arrowroot, squash, avocado, and other fruits and harvested fauna. The wetland fields were active at a time of population expansion, landscape alteration, and droughts and could have been adaptations to all of these major shifts in Maya civilization. These wetland-farming systems add to the evidence for early and extensive human impacts on the global tropics. Broader evidence suggests a wide distribution of wetland agroecosystems across the Maya Lowlands and Americas, and we hypothesize the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane from burning, preparing, and maintaining these field systems contributed to the Early Anthropocene.