After emerging sometime before 1000 BC, the Maya rose to become the most advanced Pre-Columbian society in the Americas, thriving in jungle cities of tens of thousands of people, such as the one in Guatemala's Tikal National Park. But after reaching its peak between 250 and 900 AD, the Maya civilization began to wane and exactly why has been an enduring mystery to scientists.
Writing in the Nov.-Dec. issue of the Soil Science of America Journal (SSSA-J), an interdisciplinary team led by Richard Terry, a Brigham Young University soil scientist, now describes its analysis of maize agriculture in the soils of Tikal. Not surprisingly, the study uncovered evidence for major maize production in lowland areas, where erosion is less likely and agriculture was presumably more sustainable for this community of an estimated 60,000 people.
But the team also discovered evidence of erosion in upslope soils, suggesting that farming did spread to steeper, less suitable soils over time. And if Maya agriculture did cause substantial erosion, the soil loss could eventually have undercut the Maya's ability to grow food, say the researchers.
The findings are just the latest example of how invisible artifacts in soil—something archeologists literally used to brush aside—can inform studies of past civilizations. That's because artwork and buildings can crumble over time and jungles will eventually conceal ancient farm fields, but "the soil chemistry is still there," Terry says.
He explains, for example, that most forest vegetation native to Tikal uses a photosynthetic pathway called C3, while maize uses a pathway called C4. The soil organic matter derived from these two pathways also differs, allowing researchers to make conclusions about the types of plants that were growing in the soils they test.
Thus, by analyzing soils in different areas of Tikal as well as looking at the layers that had formed in the soils, Terry and his collaborators were able to map the areas where ancient maize production occurred, including lowland "bajo" areas and possibly steeper slopes, as more food was needed.
Questions like this about past farming practices have always interested archeologists, Terry notes. But the tools of modern soil science are now enabling these scientists to ask increasingly sophisticated questions about how ancient peoples tried to sustain themselves—and whether their treatment of the land was a factor in cases where they failed.
"[These tools] open us up to thinking about the world in ways that we haven't before," Terry says. "We have changed the paradigm amongst the archaeologists."
American Society of Agronomy: http://www.agronomy.org
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
University of Tasmania finds 35 species face shifts in their ranges and egg-laying patterns as the waters off south-east Australia warm faster than average
Listening to icebergs could help to assess the extent of glacier melt, a study suggests.
The British firm that developed the strain of mosquito says it has already tested the insect in tropical countries and found it can reduce populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes by 90 percent.
It's been nearly 100 years since a sighting of a Sierra Nevada red fox was documented in Yosemite National Park, according to park staff.
New Yorkers caught the wimpy end of Juno, but the carbon charged storm chin-checked New England.
Experts are pinning their hopes on in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to save the northern white rhino from extinction.
Bulletproof batteries may extend the life of electronic devices and prevent fires, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
Science agency the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology predict temperature rises of up to 5.1c in Australia by 2090 in their most comprehensive forecast yet
Glacier monitoring technology shows the most rapid glacier depletion for at least three centuries. Big glaciers are shrinking, with small ones disappearing altogether, writes Bernard Francou
A see-saw effect of warm water slushing in the equatorial Pacific may make extreme climate events El Niño and La Niña twice as frequent