Forest conservation began 3,000 years ago with Maya civilization

As published in the July issue of the "Journal of Archaeological Science," paleoethnobotanist David Lentz of the University of Cincinnati has concluded that not only did the Maya people practice forest management, but when they abandoned their forest conservation practices it was harmful for the entire Maya culture.

"From our research we have learned that the Maya were deliberately conserving forest resources," says David Lentz, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati and executive director of the Cincinnati Center for Field Studies. "Their deliberate conservation practices can be observed in the wood they used for construction and this observation is reinforced by the pollen record."

The UC team was the first to work at the Tikal site core in northern Guatemala in over 40 years. Whereas previous archaeological excavations reflected an interest in culture history, focused on the upper class, researchers' interests are different this time around.

Picture are University of Cincinnati geographer Nicholas Dunning, anthropologist Vernon Scarborough, and paleoethnobotanist David Lentz.

(Photo Credit: University of Cincinnati Biological Sciences)

"Forty years ago the emphasis was on what king built what palace, who slew whom and who is portrayed on what stelae. It's all about the rulers and their exploits," says Lentz. "They didn't look at the economy, agricultural practices, forest management or how the people and the culture functioned."

"They were not allowed to cut down what we're calling the 'sacred groves,'" says Lentz. "Then that changed during the Late Classic period with Jasaw Chan K'awiil — one of the greatest figures of prehistory. The Tikal Maya had been beaten up and had fallen to second-rate status prior to his ascendancy. Jasaw Chan K'awiil led an army to the heartland of a competing city, Calakmul, captured their ruler, bound him, brought him back and sacrificed him — and it totally reversed their fortunes in a very dramatic way."

Pictured are UC grad student Kim Thompson, Maria de Los Angeles Corado (Guatemalan archaeologist) and Demetrio Cordoba (Guatemalan worker). Trees in the Maya forests can live for hundreds of years and therefore the trees there now are only a few generations away from the time the Maya abandoned Tikal. They expect to find patterns in distribution of trees that reflect ancient Maya usage as they have found at other sites.

(Photo Credit: Dr. David Lentz)

After that, the Maya rebuilt the city of Tikal in new and improved way. They begin building huge temples that required considerable resources, especially large, straight trees whose wood could withstand the weight of tons of stone. Their choices were limited to only two types of trees.

"So, unfortunately, Jasaw Chan K'awiil taped into their sacred groves to do this," says Lentz. After building a few of the temples, the Maya ran out of timber from the Manilkara zapota (sapodilla) tree. They then switched to a weaker tree found in swamps called Haematoxylon campechianum, commonly referred to as logwood or inkwood.

"Sapodilla is soft when you first cut it, so it can be carved into beautiful, intricate shapes. Yet when it dries, it is as hard as iron," Lentz explains. "Logwood, on the other hand, is like iron to start with and stays that way."

Logwood is often crooked and short compared to the Sapodilla so the logwood archways in the temples were less ornate. While temples 1 through 4 are quite large, temples 5 and 6 are much smaller. They are numbered in order of construction, with temple 4 having the largest the beams over the doorways, or lintels.

"For the last temple (temple 3), they went back to sapodilla — why?" says Lentz. "Perhaps they had replanted after their sacred groves had been cleared of their timber. After 40 years you get a tree big enough with which to build. Also, at that point, things were beginning to go downhill for the Maya. Perhaps they reasoned that the gods didn't like the new style of temple and they needed to return to the construction style of earlier, and more prosperous, times."

"When you clear all the forests, it changes the hydrologic cycle," says Lentz. "The world is like a flat surface with all the trees acting as sponges on it. The trees absorb the water. Without the trees, there is no buffer to stop the water from runoff. That causes soil erosion, which then chokes the rivers and streams. With no trees, you lose water retention in the soil or aquifers so the ground dries up and then there is less transpiration, so therefore less rainfall as well."

In addition to using the trees as timber, the Maya also burned the trees, adding carbon dioxide to the air. But the trees, which remove carbon dioxide from the air transform it into clean oxygen, were becoming scarce.

"Forests provide many benefits to society," says Lentz. "The Maya forests provided timber, fuel, food, fiber and medicine in addition to the ecosystem services of cleansing the air and water. Just as forests provided essential resources for the ancient Maya, the same is true for our civilization today."

"We're saying in the end they were unsuccessful," says Lentz. "But they kept it going for several hundreds of years — so they must have done some things right."

Pictured are University of Cincinnati Professor David Lentz (left) and anthropology grad student Brian Lane (right) flank Guatemalan archaeologists inside one of the temple sites.

(Photo Credit: University of Cincinnati Department of Biological Sciences)

Source: University of Cincinnati