Published: Wednesday, 17 November 2021 22:35
Using the high-resolution airborne LiDAR data, archaeologists have found extensive systems of sophisticated irrigation and terracing in and outside the ancient settlements of three Classic-period Maya kingdoms — Piedras Negras, La Mar, and Lacanja Tzeltal — in the Upper Usumacinta River basin of Mexico and Guatemala.
“There’s a narrative that depicts the Maya as people who engaged in unchecked agricultural development,” said Dr. Andrew Scherer, an anthropologist at Brown University.
“The narrative goes: The population grew too large, the agriculture scaled up, and then everything fell apart.”
“But our new study suggests that that narrative doesn’t tell the full story.”
Using drones and LiDAR, Dr. Scherer and colleagues surveyed a rectangle of land connecting three Maya kingdoms: Piedras Negras, La Mar and Sak Tz’i’, whose political capital was centered on the archaeological site of Lacanjá Tzeltal.
Despite being roughly 24 km (15 miles) away from one another as the crow flies, these three urban centers had very different population sizes and governing power.
“Today, the world has hundreds of different nation-states, but they’re not really each other’s equals in terms of the leverage they have in the geopolitical landscape. This is what we see in the Maya empire as well,” Dr. Scherer said.
All these Maya kingdoms were governed by an ajaw, or a lord — positioning them as equals, in theory.
But Piedras Negras, the largest kingdom, was led by a k’uhul ajaw, a ‘holy lord,’ a special honorific not claimed by the lords of La Mar and Sak Tz’i’. La Mar and Sak Tz’i’ weren’t exactly equal peers, either.
While La Mar was much more populous than the Sak T’zi’ capital Lacanjá Tzeltal, the latter was more independent, often switching alliances and never appearing to be subordinate to other kingdoms, suggesting it had greater political autonomy.
The LiDAR survey showed that, despite their differences, these three kingdoms boasted one major similarity: agriculture that yielded a food surplus.
“What we found in the LiDAR survey points to strategic thinking on the Maya’s part in this area,” Dr. Scherer said.
“We saw evidence of long-term agricultural infrastructure in an area with relatively low population density — suggesting that they didn’t create some crop fields late in the game as a last-ditch attempt to increase yields, but rather that they thought a few steps ahead.”
In all three kingdoms, the LiDAR data also revealed signs of what the researchers call ‘agricultural intensification’ — the modification of land to increase the volume and predictability of crop yields.
Agricultural intensification methods in these kingdoms, where the primary crop was maize, included building terraces and creating water management systems with dams and channeled fields.
Penetrating through the often-dense jungle, the LiDAR showed evidence of extensive terracing and expansive irrigation channels across the region, suggesting that these kingdoms were not only prepared for population growth but also likely saw food surpluses every year.
“It suggests that by the Late Classic Period, around 600 to 800 CE, the area’s farmers were producing more food than they were consuming,” Dr. Scherer said.
“It’s likely that much of the surplus food was sold at urban marketplaces, both as produce and as part of prepared foods like tamales and gruel, and used to pay tribute, a tax of sorts, to local lords.”
The results appear in the journal Remote Sensing.
Charles Golden et al. 2021. Airborne Lidar Survey, Density-Based Clustering, and Ancient Maya Settlement in the Upper Usumacinta River Region of Mexico and Guatemala. Remote Sens 13 (20): 4109; doi: 10.3390/rs13204109
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