Thomas' Plant-Related Blog

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Were the Maya noble savages?

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Somewhere between 700 and 900 AD, the Maya civilisation in Central America seemed to collapse. Why? For some time, the conventional explanation has been deforestation. They were so efficient at chopping down trees for timber and for farmland that they got rid of the forest, and without it, the fertile soil was eroded. It’s not unlike the story of Easter Island on a larger scale, and like Easter Island, it’s been used as a cautionary tale for modern society.

The authors of a couple of recent studies disagree. Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh describe what they call the ‘Maya Forest Garden’, managed by a 12 to 24 year ‘milpa’ cycle, with different uses made of an area as the trees grew back up after being cut down. As the press release points out: “Today, the Maya forest is dominated by these useful plants, nurtured by traditional farmers of the region who grow a wide array of food, medicine, and spices as well as materials for construction, tools, and utensils.” Clearly, if the Maya were using the forest so carefully, they wouldn’t have mindlessly chopped it down for farmland.

Cameron McNeil, David Burney, and Lida Pigott Burney, writing in PNAS, describe their study of a pollen core, showing that although deforestation had happened previously, the forest actually seemed to be expanding at the relevant point. They, too, suggest that the Maya “were skilled managers of their landscape”. They subscribe to the theory that it was a drought, or a series of droughts, that hit the Maya.

All of which sounds a lot like the romantic concept of the ‘noble savage’, primitive people supposedly living in harmony with their environment, providing another fine lesson for our modern society. Many people find the idea attractive, but the truth seems to be that the apparent harmony is due to a lack of technology: without a gun, it’s harder to hunt things to extinction.

So what’s the evidence? The milpa cycle of clearing forest and letting it regrow has a basis in reality: some of the Maya’s descendants today use such a system. But before the collapse, the Maya had a large, complex society, and it seems plausible that they would have adopted more intensive, high-yielding agriculture. Their key crop, maize, doesn’t require insects from the forest for pollination; neither do domesticated beans.

The pollen study is based around one single core from Petapilla pond. That’s not encouraging: a shift in the pollen record could mean that land use in the region changed, or that a couple of trees grew up or were cut down beside the lake, or that the wind patterns had changed. It would be more convincing with a handful of cores from different places. Nonethless, there is a clear increase in tree & shrub pollen relative to herb pollen at the relevant time, although it’s due to less herb pollen, not more tree pollen.

Graph of pollen ratios at different depths in the core

Tree and shrub pollen relative to herb pollen through the core (older towards the right). After McNeil et al. In other news, whoever decided that supplementary data should be copied into tables in a Word document needs their head examining.

As a non-specialist, I know I’m in danger of trying to comment on something I don’t really know about, so I shan’t give a firm conclusion. Suffice it to say that I don’t think the evidence for the Maya preserving the forest is quite the knockout blow that it might seem.


McNeil, C., Burney, D., & Burney, L. (2009). Evidence disputing deforestation as the cause for the collapse of the ancient Maya polity of Copan, Honduras Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (3), 1017-1022 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0904760107
Ford, A., & Nigh, R. (2009). Origins of the Maya Forest Garden: Maya Resource Management Journal of Ethnobiology, 29 (2), 213-236 DOI: 10.2993/0278-0771-29.2.213


Written by Thomas Kluyver

23 January, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Papers

4 Responses

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  1. And I think it must not be overlooked that even if the Maya did employ such a relatively environmentally friendly system, and even if they chose to use such a system deliberately for its environmentally friendly effects, it does not necessarily follow that they succeeded in preserving the forest, or that the balance of all their actions resulted in a sustainable exploitation of their environment, or that they continued to employ such systems in the face of other pressures to over-exploit their environment.


    24 January, 2010 at 11:35 pm

  2. Really interesting post! I submitted it to scientia pro publica carnival, hope you don’t mind. The next edition will be on Psi Wavefunction’s page on first February:

    Lab Rat

    25 January, 2010 at 10:20 am

    • Thanks! You mentioned that in a comment before, I must get round to looking at it.

      Thomas Kluyver

      25 January, 2010 at 10:54 am

  3. […] Were the Maya noble savages? Everyone knows that the Mayan civilization collapsed around 700 AD, but people are still not sure why.  The most popular explanation is that the Mayans wrecked their own ecosystem through deforestation, but were they really that careless? Thomas Kluyver at Thomas’ Plant-Related Blog considers the cons of the explanation. […]

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