Ancient Maya still prompts impacts on the environment today

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Maya Temple
The Maya temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent and Mayan snake deity, is seen at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza, in the southern Mexican state of Yucatan, in this picture taken May 3, 2012 and made available to Reuters on December 17, 2012. Dec. 21 marks the end of an age in a 5,125 year-old Maya calendar, an event that is variously interpreted as the end of days, the start of a new era or just a good excuse for a party. Thousands of New Age mystics, spiritual adventurers and canny businessmen are converging on ancient ruins in southern Mexico and Guatemala to find out what will happen. Picture taken May 3, 2012. Reuters

Researchers found that today’s environmental conditions are still being influenced by ancient Maya activities, which also contributed on the decline of their environment more than 2,000 years ago. The evidence shows that the impacts of Maya’s advanced urban and rural infrastructure from thousands of years ago have altered ecosystems within globally important tropical forests, particularly the climate, vegetation, hydrology and the lithosphere.

The study was the first to show the full extent of the “Mayacene,” or the microcosm of the early period when human activity began greatly affecting environmental conditions. The researchers from the University of Texas have identified the six “golden spikes” that denote a time of large-scale change on the environment.

The spikes include the “Maya clay” rocks, unique soil sequences, carbon isotope ratios, widespread chemical enrichment, building remains and landscape modifications, and signs of Maya-induced climate change.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, UT Austin, shows that Maya clay and soil sequences indicate environmental events, including erosion, human land-use changes and periods of instability. An increased carbon isotope ratios has been found in soil profiles near wetlands because of the agriculture and corn production.

The researchers said that the most visual indication of human impact was in building material remains and landscape modifications of Maya. They believe that the clues may reveal the process of how the Mayas used water management to adapt to climate change.

“These spikes give us insight into how and why Mayas interacted with their environment, as well as the scope of their activity,” said co-author Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, chair of the Department of Geography and the Environment.

“Most popular sources talk about the Anthropocene and human impacts on climate since the industrial revolution, but we are looking at a deeper history,” said lead author Tim Beach, a professor of geography and the environment at the University of Texas. Although the effects of climate change accelerated in the last century, Beach added that the humans’ impact on the environment has been going on a lot longer.

The analysis on the wetland systems has surprised the researchers about the combination of human and natural contributions, Luzzadder-Beach said. The geochemical changes indicated that some wetlands were natural, while others were built landscapes used to grow crops away from the large population.

“We can learn a lot from how Maya altered their environment to create vast field systems to grow more crops and respond to rising sea levels,” Beach said. Many existing forests are still influenced by Maya activities, with many structures, terraces and wetlands still existing today.

Beach said that the study shows the deep history and complexity of human interactions with nature, and in a part of the world where people still have little knowledge about the natural environment.

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