Ancient Maya wetland fields revealed under tropical forest canopy from laser scanning and multiproxy evidence

Beach, Timothy
Luzzadder-Beach, Sheryl
Krause, Samantha
Guderjan, Tom
Valdez Jr., Fred
Fernandez-Diaz, Juan Carlos
Eshleman, Sara
Doyle, Colin
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National Academy of Sciences

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.

Understanding agricultural subsistence is vital for understanding past complex societies. Lidar data are indicating widespread ancient Maya infrastructure. Wetland agriculture was crucial to ancient cultures, but no previous study coupled lidar with multiproxy evidence to demonstrate the extent and uses of Maya wetland fields. We conducted a lidar survey around wetlands that multiple use proxies established were ancient Maya polycultural systems. Lidar indicated the Birds of Paradise (BOP) wetland field complex was five times larger than we had previously mapped and identified an even larger wetland agroecosystem. We ground-verified the BOP fields through excavations and dating, creating a study to couple these multiproxy data with lidar, thereby demonstrating widespread ancient Maya wetland agroecosystems.