Anthropological Papers at the University of Arizona

Paper #69
Ancient Maya Life in the Far West Bajo: Social and Environmental Change in the Wetlands of Belize

Author(s): Julie L. Kunen*

Publisher: Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona 69, 2004, $16.95
Order From: http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/books.php

 

Abstract
Human activity during centuries of occupation significantly altered the landscape inhabited by the ancient Maya in northwestern Belize. In response, the Maya developed new techniques to harvest the natural resources of their surroundings, investing increased labor and raw materials into maintaining and even improving their ways of life.

In this lively story of life in the wetlands on the outskirts of the major site of La Milpa, Kunen documents a hitherto unrecognized form of intensive agriculture in the Maya lowlands, one that relied on the construction of terraces and berms to trap soil and moisture around the margins of low-lying depressions, called bajos. She traces the intertwined histories of residential settlements on nearby hills and ridges and agricultural terraces and other farming-related features around the margins of the bajo as they developed from the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C.-A.D. 250) until the area's abandonment in the Terminal Classic period (about A.D. 850). In examining the organization of three bajo communities with respect to the use and management of resources critical to agricultural production, Kunen argues that differences in access to spatially variable natural resources resulted in highly patterned settlement remains and that community founders who had acquired the best quality and most diverse set of resources, and their descendants, maintained an elevated status in the society.

Kunen's reconstruction of the paleoenvironment of the bajo is based on a synthesis of numerous strands of ecological data provided by specialists in geomorphology, hydrology, soil science, and palynology. The thorough integration of three lines of evidence (the settlement system, the agricultural system, and the ancient environment) breaks new ground in landscape research and, equally important, in the study of Maya non-elite domestic organization. When anthropogenic change to the landscape led to a serious degradation of the environment, spurring deforestation, erosion, and deterioration of water resources, it created new niches for exploitation and fostered innovative responses to altered conditions that allowed the Maya to survive for several centuries more. In presenting this agricultural landscape to the reader, Kunen reports on the history of settlement and farming in a small corner of the Maya world, but the implication for any study of human-environment relationships is that these long term interactions are reflexive and that environmental history consists equally of ecological and cultural strands of influence.

*Julie L. Kunen is an American Association for the Advancement of Science Diplomacy Fellow with the Forestry Team of the USAID Natural Resource Management Office.

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