Maya Farming & Agriculture
Often overlooked, Maya agriculture illustrates the extent of the ingenuity of the Maya, particularly their capacity to make the most of an incredibly difficult environment...
- Maya Crops: what did the ancient Maya grow?
- A surprising variety of crops
- Adapted to a variety of environments
- Agriculture at Joya de Cerén, the Maya Pompeii
- How do we know what we know about Maya Farming?
- Study of the soils
- From the air
- Maya agrarian system
- Low density agrarian-based urbanism
- Infield versus Outfield
- The Maya house gardens
- The Maya forest gardens
- The Milpa
- The Milpa cycle
- The Milpa rotation
- Terrace farming
- What is terracing?
- Terraces functions
- Terracing at Caracol (Belize)
- Wetland farming
- The raised field system
- Wetland farming in Northern Belize
- Wetland farming in the Yucatan Peninsula
- Water management systems
- The cenotes of Yucatan
- Soil Fertilisers
- References & Credits
Agriculture was not only essential to feed the population, but it also helped to shape Maya cities. Farming was associated closely with political control and community resilience, and it supplied goods that were essential for political relationships through trade.
The variety in Maya agriculture is reflective of the wide range of environments in the Maya region, with variations in rainfall, soils, climate, access to groundwater, local plants and animals. An understanding of the local environment was crucial for Maya farmers and the agricultural strategies they used.
Farming was also tied strongly to the Maya calendar and the scheduling of daily activities. Seasons in the tropics are divided into a wet (around June to November) and a dry season, which vary significantly in rainfall. The hurricane season around July to October can be very destructive. Seasonality and timing were therefore critical for the Maya farmer.
But what did they grow? How did they grow it? And how do archaeologists know?
The ancient Maya grew and used hundreds of plants but few were domesticated. They also hunted and kept animals for food, but below we focus on plants and the methods used to cultivate these plants.
A surprising variety of crops
Maya crops present an incredible diversity. In the past, as today, the Maya used multi-cropping, meaning that several different plants would be grown in one area. This diversity provides more resistance against pests and maintains better levels of nutrients in the soil1Chase, D.Z. et al. 2020.
The well-known Maya multi-crop combination is the famous “three sisters” (Fig. 1.1): maize2Zea mays L., domesticated around 9000 years ago, beans3Phaseolus spp., domesticated around 7000 years ago and squash4Cucurbita spp., domesticated around 10000 years ago, but other familiar crops were cultivated such as vanilla5Vanilla spp. and chilli peppers6Capsicum spp..
Companion planting, as the technique is known, exploits the complementary characteristics of each plant. In the case of the Mesoamerican “Three Sisters”, beans host microorganisms in their roots that take nitrogen (an important nutrient for healthy plants) from the air and transfer it to the soil. Maize has large upright stalks which act as a support for the beans to climb. Maize offers protective shade and also provides sugars to feed nitrogen-fixing bacteria on bean roots. The large leaves of the squash shade the soil, helps retain moisture while depriving weeds from sunlight. The squash stems and leaves are also spiny, discouraging animal pests. Furthermore, these crops provide a balanced and healthy diet.
A large number of fruit trees were managed also – e.g. avocado7Persea americana Mill., annona8Annona spp., sapota9Manilkara zapota (L.) P.Royen, craboo10Or nance, Byrsonima crassifolia (L.) Kunth, hogplum11Spondias spp., guava12Psidium guajava L., papaya13Carica papaya L. – as well as other useful plants like palms (Fig. 1.2).
Adapted to a variety of environments
The variety seen in Maya agriculture is also a reflection of the environmental variety of the Maya region. Variations in rainfall, soils, climate, access to groundwater, local plants and animals that characterize each area make understanding of the local environment crucial to develop successful agricultural strategies.
Some important crops for the Maya could only be grown in restricted areas. In general crops would be grown for local use, but economically important crops with restricted growing areas, or crops that were produced in surplus to a city’s needs, would be traded.
At some archaeological sites, buildings and structures have been found that are thought to have been used to store agricultural surpluses14Isendahl et al. 2012:515-516.
Another major crop was henequen18Agave fourcroydes Lem.. It is an agave species similar to the plant used for tequila (Fig. 1.3). Henequen was an important domesticated fibre plant used for textiles and rope. It is suited to the conditions found in the Yucatán Peninsula, but different varieties can be grown depending on the fibres needed, and the local soil and rainfall19Colunga-GarcíaMarín 2003.
Agriculture at Joya de Cerén, the Maya Pompeii
The site of Joya de Cerén in El Salvador has provided a fascinating insight into Maya agriculture. The village was buried by a 4-8 meter thick layer of ash from the Loma Caldera volcanic eruption20Of the San Salvador Volcano (Quezaltepeque or El Boquerón) around AD 60021Sheets et al. 2011. The remains that were preserved include examples of house gardens and outfields.
At the time of the eruption, volcanic material coated the plants in the fields. When the plants decomposed, cavities were left in the volcanic material that kept the shape of the plants. Archaeologists can pour plaster into these cavities to recover plaster casts that show the plants that were being grown22Sheets et al. 2011:5.
Infield and outfield maize fields have been found at Joya de Cerén. The maize found in the village was more mature, which suggests either that the maize was planted at different times, or that the fields within the village were fertilised to a greater extent with household waste. Joya de Cerén households seem to have owned their own small area of agricultural land and attended to fields both near and far from the home23Sheets et al. 2011.
In a field outside the village, clustered cavities were found that were the remains of maize stalks planted together on top of ridges of earth. Cavities in the shape of ears of maize were also discovered.
One particularly important find at Joya de Cerén was a manioc24Also known as cassava: Manihot esculenta Crantz field that suggested that this plant was a staple crop (Fig. 1.6). The eruption had preserved the shape of field ridges on which the manioc was planted, with walkways between. These ridges had been shaped shortly before the eruption and they still had hand marks from shaping the earth.
The manioc had been harvested not long before the eruption and the ridge prepared for the next round of planting.
The cavities revealed very large manioc tubers that had been missed from the harvest and a large number of horizontally-buried manioc stalks that would have grown into the next crop25Sheets et al. 2011. Manioc was also found in house gardens, but to a lesser extent; maize was more dominant nearer to houses.
This indication of manioc cultivation was important because previously there had been no convincing evidence for the use of this plant by the ancient Maya; in normal ancient plant samples (e.g. burned or waterlogged), fragments of tubers like manioc are much harder to identify than remains such as seeds because they have fewer identifying features26Sheets et al. 2011:7.
Before going ahead with Maya agrarian strategies, let’s see how archaeologists learn about Maya farming.
There are many different types of evidence that archaeologists can use to investigate Maya agriculture. From ethnobotany to airborne mapping systems, Archaeologists use a wide variety of approaches in their research, to add a range of details and to be more certain about their findings.
Ethnobotany refers to observations and records of the Maya using particular plants and agricultural methods.
These observations may be ethnohistorical, referring to the written accounts of the early Spanish arrivals in the Maya area.
Researchers can also ask modern Maya farmers what they do and use27e.g. Wilk 1985 regarding the Kekchi Maya. Many of the plants and farming methods have very long histories and their origin can be traced back to ancient Maya times.
Ancient plant remains can often be found in soils excavated by archaeologists (after extraction methods such as sieving), or otherwise in artefacts or on artefact surfaces. These remains show us what the Maya were using and therefore what they may have been cultivating.
Plant remains in the Maya area may be burned (most common) or waterlogged28damp, oxygen-deprived conditions, and consist of pieces of plant such as seeds, stalks, wood, maize cobs and fruits (Fig. 2.2). These fragments can be identified to plant species or larger plant groups by comparison with modern plant specimens.
Much smaller, microscopic, plant remains can also be found.
One type are phytoliths, which may be found in soils, on artefact surfaces, or on teeth (Fig. 2.3). Phytoliths are pieces of silica which form within plant cells. When the organic part of the plant decomposes over time, these pieces of silica remain. The shape of a phytolith relates to the part of the plant that it comes from and to the type of plant.
Microscopic starch grains can also be found on artefacts and teeth and can be identified to plant types. In addition, samples taken from the bottom of lakes can provide ancient pollen samples that suggest the vegetation in an area at a particular time, including cultivated plants.
Numerous seeds were recovered from excavations at Joya de Cerén. They show the wide variety of plant remains uncovered at a Maya site (Fig. 2.4).
Study of the soils
Soils can be studied by archaeologists to understand how land has been used in the past, including agriculture. One method is to look at the walls of a trench that has been dug29Known as a “soil profile”.
Natural soil forms in defined layers and surface soils are particularly distinctive. Where these surface soils have been disturbed, removed, or buried, it is possible that humans have been modifying their environment. Changes in the soil structure can also be seen at a microscopic level (known as “soil micromorphology“, Fig. 2.5).
Soil chemistry is another way to identify human activity. For example, high nutrient levels in suspected agricultural areas can suggest human activity, such as the application of nutrient-rich material as a fertiliser. The isotopes in soil organic matter can also suggest the broad types of plants in an environment e.g. grasses or trees.
From the air
Field systems can be mapped on the ground, but it can be very difficult to map large areas or to see shapes in the landscape where there is vegetation. They can be seen from the air because they have left long lasting impacts on the landscape.
In areas without thick vegetation some field systems can be identified by flying over with a small airplane or using resources such as Google Earth30Guderjan et al. 2016:100. For areas with thick forest, however, it is incredibly difficult to map with normal imaging from the air and also on the ground. In these areas LiDAR has become a valuable tool31Chase and Chase 1998:64; Chase et al. 2012.
LiDAR32light detection and ranging uses an airplane generally less than 1km above the earth to send laser pulses through small gaps in the forest canopy. The distance is measured between the target point on the ground and the sensor on the airplane, so that the topography of the ground can be mapped. The points are located using GPS and transformed into images of the landscape with computer software33Chase et al. 2012:12920.
Airborne mapping was used first in the Maya area in 2009 at Caracol in Belize34Chase et al. 2012:12918 where it has played a large part in research (see section 5). Other methods of mapping were difficult at the site because of the thick vegetation35Chase et al. 2011:389.
This technology was used more recently in the Peten, namely at Naachtun (Fig. 2.7), and has been very valuable for determining the layout of Maya cities, and consequently also agricultural areas, giving us a far greater idea of the full extent of the human landscape36Chase et al. 2012:12918; Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:344.
Before LiDAR research focused on large buildings because they were easier to detect in the forest, meaning that other areas, including agricultural, were understudied37Chase et al. 2011:395. LiDAR has allowed archaeologists to understand the full extent of numerous sites and their modifications by humans, including terraces and reservoirs like at Caracol38Chase et al. 2014a:214; Chase, D.Z. et al 2020 (see section 5).
Work on the ground is still necessary, however, to analyse artefacts, date what archaeologists see, examine and sample soils, and to look at the construction methods of different features in the landscape39Chase et al. 2014a:218.
There are numerous other types of evidence that can be used to study Maya agriculture. These include:
- Maya art: images of plants or activities involving plants40Turner and Miksicek 1984.
- Isotopes in human skeletons: these give an indication of diet, linked to particular plant groups.
- Residues from ceramic vessels.
- Linguistics: tracing the origin of a word to suggest where that plant originated or how long it has been used for41Turner and Miksicek 1984.
- Experimental archaeology: for example building fields and testing the effects of different farming methods42Puleston 1977.
Now that we have explored the various methods archaeologists use to investigate Maya farming, let’s see how Maya agriculture was organised.
Low density agrarian-based urbanism
This form is common in tropical environments – similar layouts exist at Angkor Wat in Cambodia – where cities are spread out and include agriculture within the urban environment45Chase and Chase 1998:74; 2016b:3. There was some variety in layout between cities, however, because they were also influenced by factors such as the local environment and politics46Chase and Chase 2016b:3-4.
The dispersed plan of the city, with easily accessible agricultural areas, offered a number of advantages. One advantage was convenience for farming because, aside from canoes, the Maya method of travel was walking (there were no beasts of burden or wheels)47Chase et al. 2011:397.
By being spread out Maya cities also covered a range of environments, which provided some protection against environmental and climate changes48Chase, D.Z. et al. 2020.
The Maya, as elsewhere in the world, used a variety of agricultural methods in response to factors such as local tradition, local conditions, the requirements of plants, or the organisation of labour and resources by those in power.
A diversity of farming methods also provided resilience; this avoided relying on one means of food production that could be sensitive to factors such as flooding.
Broadly, the main agricultural strategies can be described as:
- wetland agriculture,
- forest gardens and house gardens,
The variety of Maya agricultural methods, however, goes beyond this.
Infield versus Outfield
Agriculture can be divided into the ‘infield’, close to home and within easy walking distance, and the ‘outfield’, which requires some travelling to reach. Households may have had several houses that were located near to different outfields for seasonal activities; the modern Maya practice this and it is recorded in historic Spanish records49Fisher 2014:197; Ford and Nigh 2015:102-103; Killion 1990. Both infield and outfield maize fields have been found at Joya de Cerén.
Infield agriculture, next to the home, is thought to be one of the main reasons for low-density Maya cities50Fisher 2014; Isendahl 2012. One method of infield cultivation is the Maya house garden51Or home/ houselot/ kitchen garden.
In general infields fulfil the daily needs of a house, but outfields may be used where increased yields are needed, to protect against failed harvests in the infield, or to produce crops for a more central political power52Ford and Clarke 2019:161-162.
The Maya house gardens
These are a feature of modern Maya life and are thought to be a long tradition dating back to ancient Maya times. Modern Maya house gardens give us some idea of what ancient Maya gardens may have been like.
The Maya houselot (or solar) is the area adjacent to and surrounding a house, or cluster of houses53Caballero 1992; Killion 1990. The houselot is the main living area, divided into different sections, including a garden54Caballero 1992; Killion 1990.
House gardens can be quite substantial. The size of modern house gardens is variable but, as an example, for calculating food production at the archaeological site of El Pilar, an area of 4000m2 was used55Ford and Nigh 2015:121.
In addition to food, plants cultivated in house gardens will also have uses such as for medicine or for thatch rooves. Within the houselot, activities such as beekeeping56The ancient Maya kept the stingless bee, Melipona beecheii. may also take place, which is recorded historically57Fisher 2014. The houselot area is difficult to identify archaeologically, but some stone walls marking the boundaries have been found58Fisher 2014.
The house garden is cultivated intensively59Fisher 2014. The tree crop section, or orchard, of the house garden is one of the strongest parts and somewhat resembles the structure of a natural forest. There are different levels of vegetation and planting is based on a consideration of the natural habitats of plants.
The Maya forest gardens
Combining agriculture and silviculture/arboriculture, the Maya were experts at forest gardening. The main tree species are also common in forests – these are left to stand when the forest is cleared60Caballero 1992. A diverse range of species are grown in house gardens – a sample of 60 modern Yucatecan61Yucatecan: of or relating to the speakers of Yucatec Maya language, the Yucatán Peninsula, or the Mexican state of Yucatán. house gardens found 83 tree types, dominated by fruit trees62Caballero 1992.
The genetic variability of fruit trees in a modern house garden suggest that they have been cultivated for a long time. Domesticated fruit trees such as hogplum63Spondias spp., avocado64Persea americana Mill. and annona65Annona spp. were probably in ancient gardens.
As today, the ancient Maya also probably managed other parts of the forest to encourage useful resources66Ford and Nigh 2015:123. Some forest modifications have been seen in more recent times. Until the late 20th century, the Yucatec Maya used a system called pet kot. The name comes from the low wall of stones (pet, “circular”, and kot, “wall of loose stones”) that surrounds the plot of land67Lentz 2000:212. In this stony region, a protected area, which contrasted the surrounding area, was created to support areas of useful trees.
Similar enriched areas have been seen near to cenotes68Sinkhole as the result of collapsed limestone, which exposes the groundwater., where small areas with favourable conditions (shade, windbreaks, good soil moisture and humidity) have been created that allow cacao and other plants that are usually unable to grow in the area, to flourish69Ford and Nigh 2015:67-68; Gomez-Pompa et al. 1987; Peters 2000.
After this overview of Maya farming, let’s see one of the most successful agricultural method ever invented.
Maya milpa -sometimes referred to as swidden or slash-and-burn– dominated early Maya agricultural research, due to its visibility as a strategy used by modern Maya. This earlier research saw milpa as destructive to the forest and questioned its sustainability70e.g. Blanton et al. 1993:164-165; Coe 1999:27.
More recently, however, milpa is being viewed more as a long-term, continuous and beneficial, cycle of field to forest that integrates agriculture, silviculture71i.e. managing forests to produce useful products and forest regeneration72Ford and Clarke 2019:157-158; Ford and Nigh 2009; 2014; 2015.
The Milpa cycle
The milpa cycle has three phases that mimic natural forest development:
In the dry season an area of forest74between 2 and 5 hectars is cut and burned, but a selection of trees is kept with the future regeneration of the forest in mind. At this first stage, sun-loving plants are grown, which could be any of 90 crops that include maize, beans and squash75Ford and Clarke 2019:161; Ford and Nigh 2015.
This field is cultivated for up to 4 years and then fruit and hardwood trees sprout beneath the crops, starting the forest’s regeneration. This area ultimately becomes a dense forest.
In addition to being located at distance from the home, milpa may also be a part of the house garden76Ford and Nigh 2015:47 and, historically, terraces could be next to houses as well. Locating this agriculture near to houses, these fields could be more easily tended to and also fertilised with kitchen waste and night soil (i.e. toilet waste)77Chase, D.Z. et al. 2020.
The Milpa rotation
Households will stagger land plots so that at any one time they can access different stages of the milpa cycle, from field to forest, with a diverse range of useful plants78Altieri 2002; Brookfield 1988; Ford and Clarke 2019:160-161; Wilken 1971. Even at the forest stage, useful trees and other plants are encouraged.
The strategy of staggering plots creates a variety of habitats for a diverse range of animals and plants; this contrasts more destructive European monocropping79i.e. growing a single crop on a plot of land methods of farming that often are used in the Maya area today80Ford and Clarke 2019.
These milpa strategies, used by modern Maya farmers, are well documented by a large corpus of ethnographic research81see Toledo et al. 2013. Observations written in early Spanish records indicate that the ancient Maya used similar strategies.
The milpa cycle leaves little trace that can be seen archaeologically. Nonetheless some archaeologists believe that the system could have been used to support sizeable populations.
For example, for the large population of El Pilar on the Belize-Guatemala border, it is thought that a maximum of 15% of the landscape would have been needed for milpa to feed the population82Ford and Clarke 2019:171-173.
In their tropical environment, Maya farmers faced two major issues: soil erosion and water retention. To address these problems, they became expert at terracing.
Terracing, at a variety of scales, is found in a number of areas including: northern to central Belize; Campeche and Quintana Roo in south-eastern and eastern Mexico; northern-central Guatemala; and to a certain extent in the Maya Mountains (eastern Guatemala, Belize)83Beach and Dunning 1995; 1997; Beach et al 2002:389; Dunning and Beach 1994; Dunning et al. 1998; Rice 1993; Turner 1974; 1983.
What is terracing?
Terraces are soil platforms, often built on slopes and appearing step-like in the landscape. Frequently terraces were constructed by removing soil down to limestone bedrock and then constructing rubble walls, behind which soil was built up for planting, to a level generally far thicker than the natural soil of the area84Beach et al. 2002:379-380, 391.
Terraces are identified as human-made by the soils – which do not have the same layers as natural soils – stone walls, and often artefacts85Beach et al. 2002:376. Archaeologists have to be careful, however, as some natural features can mimic terraces, for example when trees fall perpendicular to a slope or where limestone naturally weathers into a step-like shape86Beach et al. 2002:379.
Terraces were varied depending on their function or location on the landscape87Beach et al. 2002:379. One main function was that they allowed the ancient Maya to control the flow of water over the landscape88Chase and Weishampel 2016.
Water that originated at the top of a slope as rainwater would be diverted downhill via walls and channels. Some of the reasons that terraces were built could have included that they:
- Improved soil moisture by retaining water, even with minimal rainfall
- Reduced erosion
- Diverted storm water to other locations, to avoid flooding and destruction, or to reservoirs or fields for storage or hydration
- Accumulated soils, to build suitable planting surfaces
- Made impractical slopes easier to use89Beach et al 2002; Chase, D.Z. et al 2020; Doolittle 1985; 1995
Terraces, and increased terracing, is generally thought to have been a response to population increase because it allowed more crops to be grown90Beach et al. 2002:376; Chase and Chase 1998; Dunning 1995; Dunning and Beach 1994; Fedick 1994; Turner 1974; Whitmore and Turner 1992.
Terracing at Caracol (Belize)
Like most ancient Maya cities, the site of Caracol was truly “green” with intermixed buildings and agriculture91Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:350. The agricultural land meant that households were generally around 100 to 150 metres apart92Chase and Chase 2014; 2016b:6. Although this dispersed layout was similar at other Maya cities, Caracol was more extensive than the majority known at this time93Chase and Chase 2016b; Chase et al. 2014b:8686; Isendahl and Smith 2013.
As LiDAR cartography has shown (Fig. 5.4 and 5.5), there was around 160 square kilometres of terracing in total – some individual terraces up to 1 kilometre – and the city was developed alongside its terracing94Chase and Chase 1998:70; Chase and Chase 2016a. The scale of the terracing would have required a lot of labour and shows the importance placed on large scale agriculture95Chase and Chase 2016b; Chase and Weishampel 2016:358.
The bottom and slopes of the valley, and occasionally the hilltops, were terraced96Chase and Weishampel 2016:360. Ground was cleared to bedrock97Bedrock: The solid rock underlying the layers of loose soil. and then rock, soil and household waste were transported from other locations to build the terrace98Chase and Chase 1998; Chase and Chase 2016b; Chase and Weishampel 2016:358. It is thought that the terraces were actively upkept and the soils fertilised (including with night soil). It is likely that a variety of crops were grown, and every year the crops grown in a location were changed to keep soils healthy99Chase and Chase 1998:69; Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:353.
Although the Macal and Chiquibul Rivers are to the west and east of Caracol, there is no running water within the area of the site, so solutions for water were needed100Chase et al. 2011:388. The terracing controlled water as well as increased the available area for agriculture in the rough and hilly landscape101Chase and Cesaretti 2019; Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:347.
Alongside reservoirs, terracing was used to manage rainfall runoff and store rainwater. Walls directed water moving downhill towards more favourable locations for storage102Chase and Cesaretti 2019; Chase and Chase 1998:70. Computer models have shown that Caracol’s terracing increased soil moisture, which benefited agriculture, and also reduced the power of flowing water (e.g. from large storms), which, in turn, reduced soil erosion103Chase and Weishampel 2016:365-6; Coultas et al. 1993.
Terracing was built early in Caracol’s history, first in the valleys and then on the hillsides104Chase, A.F. et al. 2020. The extensive terracing that is shown by LiDAR dates to around the height of Caracol’s population, as dated by pottery found in the soils of terraces; approximately 115,000 people over 177 sq km in A.D. 650105Chase and Chase 1994:5; 1998:71; 2020; Chase, A.F. et al. 2011:393; 2020:347.
By modifying the landscape, the Maya were able to increase the intensity of agriculture and support a large urban population106Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:347, 349-350. Caracol’s inhabitants likely provided most of their own food107Chase and Chase 2016b; Chase and Cesaretti 2019; Chase, A.F. et al. 2020:353; Dahlin and Chase 2014:145-147; Lemonnier and Vanniere 2013; Murtha 2002.
Since terracing was near houses, it is likely that households focused on terracing rather than kitchen gardens, although animals such as rabbits, dogs, deer, pigs, armadillos, and agoutis might have been kept in pens near to the house108Chase and Chase 1998:61; 2020:144; Healy et al. 1980; 1983. Caracol, therefore, probably did not receive much basic food through trade, but speciality items would still have been obtained this way109Chase and Chase 2020:144.
One striking feature of the landscape in the Maya lowlands is the wetlands, particularly seasonal swamps. What could be seen as inhospitable areas was turned into fertile gardens by the Maya.
Like other agricultural strategies, wetland agriculture was varied over space and time110Beach et al. 2009:1722. Wetland agriculture was carried out either throughout the year in floodplains or seasonally in bajos (i.e. seasonal swamps)111Beach et al. 2019:21472.
The raised fields system
Floodplain areas next to rivers are very fertile and replenished with floodwaters, so they were well-suited to agriculture112Beach et al. 2009; Chase et al. 2014b:8683.
Bajos are found in the karstic113Partially-dissolved limestone interior of the Maya lowlands up to around 300 metres above sea level. Bajos are hollows in the landscape that often become swamps in the wet season, but dry out in the dry season due to the rising and falling of underground water114Beach et al. 2009:1713. Bajos are found around many of the larger Maya sites, dating from the Preclassic115Maya Preclassic: 2000 BC – AD150/250 onwards116Beach et al. 2009:1713-1714.
Frequently wetland agriculture consisted of fields separated by interconnected canals that were either ditched (canals excavated and soil moved elsewhere) or raised (excavated canal soil used to build up the field surfaces)117Beach et al. 2009. Various types of canal and field strategies can be found in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs famously used a type of raised fields called Chinampa (Fig. 6.1).
Wetland systems were large-scale and used to grow a variety of crops that included maize118Zea mays L., avocado119Persea americana Mill. and other fruits, squash120Cucurbita spp., manioc121Manihot esculenta Crantz, and arrowroot122Maranta arundinacea L. as well as cotton123Gossypium spp. among others124Beach et al. 2009; Beach et al. 2019:21473-4; Guderjan et al. 2016; Jones 1994; Luzzadder-Beach and Beach 2008; Luzzadder-Beach et al. 2012. Intensive wetland agriculture may have been a response to environmental change; in the Preclassic125Maya Preclassic: 2000 BC – AD150/250 and Classic126Maya Classic: AD150/250 – 950 eras sea level rose and flooded some fields, so wetland solutions were developed to adapt to the new environment127Beach et al. 2019:21474 (Fig. 6.2).
Wetland farming in Northern Belize
Early Spanish records suggest that the Maya farmed next to the rivers of northern Belize and in the fertile soils of the nearby valleys, growing cacao, achiote128Also known as annatto; Bixa orellana L. and maybe vanilla129Guderjan et al. 2016:96. The valleys of northern Belize have a large number of wetland ditched fields that can be seen from the air130Guderjan et al. 2016:100. Commonly the fields are in low-lying plains, in the wetlands adjacent to rivers, or at the foot of slopes (at the base of terraces)131Guderjan et al. 2016:100.
It seems that the wetland agriculture in northern Belize was part of a solution to feed an increasing population. Archaeologists think that the fields may have been controlled by those in power to produce food for them to eat and trade. Other people probably would have kept their own home gardens and milpas132Guderjan et al. 2016:106.
At the site of Chan Cahal (Fig. 6.3) the canal and field wetland agriculture appears to have developed gradually over time, although the majority of agricultural activity was in the Late/Terminal Classic133Maya Late/Terminal Classic: c. AD550/600-950. Interconnected canals were used to move water from the wetland into reservoirs134Beach et al. 2015; Guderjan et al. 2016:104. Ancient plant remains at the site suggest that some of the crops grown here included maize, avocado, squash, beans, the tree fruit, sapota135Manilkara zapota (L.) P.Royen and cacao136Beach et al. 2009; 2019:21473.
Another site, Birds of Paradise fields, is situated in a floodplain near to the meeting of three rivers. The site has a similar system of fields and canals as Chan Cahal, which cover an area of at least 1 square kilometre; LiDAR has helped to identify an area larger than that thought previously137Beach et al. 2019:21469; Guderjan et al. 2016:104 (Fig. 6.4).
More so than at Chan Cahal, these large-scale fields appear to have been pre-planned, built around the end of Late Classic138c. AD600-800, as dated from artefacts139Beach et al. 2009; 2019. The canals are up to 900m in length and run north-south and east-west. They were dug out and the excavated soils were added to the fields to raise them above water level140Beach et al. 2019:21472.
The Birds of Paradise fields appear to have been used throughout the year because of the availability of water141Beach et al. 2019. Ancient plant remains and carbon isotopes in the soil suggest that fruit trees and maize were among the plants grown here142Beach et al. 2009. It is possible that the canals also supplied fish and other aquatic animals for food. There is some archaeological evidence from shells that wetland molluscs were used as food143Beach et al. 2019:21474. The foods produced could have been used locally or traded to sites at some distance; the canals would have helped with transport by canoes144Beach et al. 2019:21474.
At another site in northern Belize, Dos Hombres, small terraces of a few metres in size have been found alongside the remains of houses. These terraces are thought to have been managed by the household and used as house gardens145Beach et al. 2002:386. At the same site, a box terrace – a raised, rectangular area of soil – was found near to a group of high status buildings.
Similar remains have been found at other Maya sites and elsewhere in Latin America. It is thought that these box terraces were used for the intensive cultivation of young plants that were then transferred to fields146Dunning and Beach 1994; Fedick 1994; Netting 1993; Wilken 1987. If this is true, it would appear that high status individuals at this site may have controlled these seedbeds and that they therefore also controlled farmers’ access to crops and land147Beach et al. 2002:386.
Wetland farming in the Yucatan Peninsula
At the site of El Edén in the Yalahua wetlands, rock alignments are thought to represent wetland cultivation (c.100 BC-AD350/450) that was then abandoned possibly due to rising sea level148Fedick 2003:349, 354. The rocks are thought to have blocked or slowed water to protect areas, retained water for use in the dry season, and slowed water to allow soil to accumulate149Fedick 2003:350-351. It is thought that these wetlands were used for intensive cultivation of plants such as maize or cotton and perhaps to encourage useful wetland plants to grow150Fedick 2003:353.
Bajo Morocoy, in southeastern Quintana Roo, which is a flat, low-lying area on the coast, is flooded seasonally151Gleissman et al. 1985. Here the Maya constructed a regular layout of raised square and rectangular platforms, 10-25m wide, which supported intensive agriculture. Between the platforms were depressed, interconnected canals, some up to 20m wide, but many 8-12m wide.
The soil from digging the canals was used to build the platforms up to 60-70cm in height, which made the fields useable even at the wettest times152Gleissman et al. 1985. Field soils were kept fertile by adding the organic matter that would build up in the canals. These strategies allowed year-round farming. In the dry season the platforms retained soil moisture, and it is possible that the canals were also planted at this time of year153Gleissman et al. 1985.
The Maya region experiences the two big constraints of water: too much during the wet season and not enough during the dry season. Water management systems were a critical infrastructure.
Access to water was crucial for drinking but also for agriculture. Many Maya areas do not have sufficient year-round rainfall or access to other water sources. Like agriculture, water strategies were variable.
The Belize River Valley area, with rich alluvial154Alluvial: relating to alluvium, the material deposited by running water. clay soils, has higher annual rainfall than many areas, and water could be easily accessed, making this area well-suited to growing maize, beans, squash, cacao and cotton155Isendahl et al. 2019:516; Lucero et al. 2004.
In areas without groundwater access, like north-west Yucatán or around the site of Tikal (Fig. 7.2), the storage of rainwater in large reservoirs (aguadas) and underground pits (chultuns) was essential156Isendahl et al. 2019:510, 512.
The cenotes of Yucatan
In comparison to sites like Caracol in the southern lowlands, cities in the northern part of the Maya area had a smaller footprint and were more densely laid out159Chase and Chase 2016b. In general this region has poor agricultural soils that are shallow, but there is also access to coastal wetlands.
At the site of Chunchucmil, which had a dense urban population and poor agricultural soils, kitchen gardens were probably located next to houses, but it is likely that the majority of food was grown outside the urban area or was imported160Chase and Chase 2016b; Dahlin et al. 2005.
In the Yalahau region in north-east Yucatán, it is thought that the Maya farmed in the cavities found on the karstic limestone landscape. In these cavities soil is deeper and plants can root deeper, sometimes reaching aquifers (i.e. underground layer of water)161Flores-Delgadillo et al. 2011; Isendahl et al. 2019:509.
At the site of Caracol, without large natural bodies of water nearby, walls were used to direct storm water downhill and reservoirs collected rainwater; reservoirs in fields were probably used for agriculture162Chase, D.Z. et al. 2020.
At Tikal the landscape is flatter than at sites such as Caracol, and so the city did not need the intensive terracing that was necessary at hillier sites163Chase and Cesaretti 2019. At Tikal, the drainage of excess water was more important than the prevention of erosion, and so a system of central and bajo edge reservoirs were used to control water164Chase and Cesaretti 2019.
The agriculture at Tikal used methods such as milpa and house gardens, alongside seasonal bajo edge agriculture, to fulfil the site’s needs165Chase and Cesaretti 2019; Dunning et al. 2019; Lentz et al. 2014; 2018. Soils from the seasonal wetlands provided fertile conditions for farming the fields on the edges of the bajos166Lentz et al. 2014:18517; 2018.
The shallow soils of the Maya region were always an issue. Fertilisers were used and it is quite possible that Maya farmers created artificial soils like their Amazonian counterparts.
Soil health and nutrient levels are important to continue to produce good yields167Yield: The amount of crop grown of crops. It appears that the ancient Maya added nutrient-rich materials to the soils to keep them healthy168e.g. Beach 1998; Beach et al. 2002:392; Chase and Chase 1998; Dunning et al. 1997.
These are thought to have included: household waste (e.g. food remains, pottery), night soil169Night soil: toilet waste and wetland soil and algae. Higher levels of phosphates170A phosphorous (P) compound in agricultural areas compared to local soils suggests that organic material may have been applied as a fertiliser171Beach et al. 2002; Dunning et al. 1997.
In many sites, artefacts found in agricultural areas – e.g. pottery in terrace soils – suggests that household waste was applied. In the shallow soils of the Yucatán Peninsula, which have low organic content and lose nutrients quickly, it is thought that periphyton may have been used as a fertiliser.
Periphyton172from the Greek word elements “peri-“, meaning around, and “phyton,” meaning plant is a complex mixture of algae, fungi, bacteria, microbes, plant detritus and animals that grows on submerged surfaces. It is widely available in a wetland environment and is rich in important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous173Palacios-Mayorga et al. 2003. A small number of shells from molluscs that only occur in wetland areas have been found at sites away from the wetlands.
One possible reason for these shells could be that they were transported with periphyton used to fertilise soils. Some archaeologists also think that one motivation for wetland fields was to supply this algae174Morrison and Cózatl-Manzano 2003.
Another important contributor to soil health appears to have been volcanic eruptions. Windblown ash from eruptions seems to have played a key part in renewing soil fertility for the ancient Maya, adding nutrients and making the soil porous, which benefits soil moisture175Tankersley et al. 2016.
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Author: Dr Lindsay Duncan
Illustrations (unless otherwise stated): Lindsay Duncan
Photo: Quixaya, Guatemala. Courtesy of Tree, Water, People. Link.
SECTION 1: Maya Crops: what did the ancient Maya grow?
Photo: Cacao pods (Theobroma cacao). Agricultural Research Service, USDA/ Public Domain /Wikimedia Commons. File.
Fig. 1.1: The Maya ‘three sisters’, AMEXCID, VENACOMER, SRE. Link.
Fig 1.2: Some Maya food plants: Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), User: PicTracs/mmmavocado (Flickr)/Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License, File; soursop (Annona muricata), User: Caesius~commonswiki/ Damouns (Flickr)/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License, File; craboo (Byrsonima crassifolia), User: Ivan.Romero~commonswiki/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License, File.
Fig 1.3: Henequen plantation. User: ZuyuaT/ GNU Free Documentation License/Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License. File.
Fig. 1.4: Joya de Ceren, Operation AE. Slotten et al 2020, fig. 3.
Fig 1.5: Staple crops recovered from the milpas at Cerén. Slotten et al 2020, fig. 4.
Fig 1.6: Manioc. User: David.Monniaux/ GNU Free Documentation License/Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License.
SECTION 2: How do we know what we know about Maya Farming?
Photo: Full-figure statue of the Maya Maize God. One of eight sculptures that were once set on the cornice of Structure 22, comissioned by Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (also known as ’18-Rabbit’), the thirteenth ruler of Copan. It was built in AD715 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his accession to the throne. The Maize God with his vibrant, youthful features represents the Maya ideal of beauty and features prominently in Maya art during the Classic period (200BC – AD900). He personifies the agricultural cycle and is associated with abundance and prosperity. In this sculpture his headdress is a stylized ear of corn and his hair the silk of the corn. The Trustees of the British Museum (Asset number: 495747001) Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
Fig. 2.1: Papaya fruit, 1750-1773, Christoph Jakob Trew; illustrator: Georg Dionysius Ehret, engraver: Johann Jacob Haid. Real Jardín Botánico Madrid. Creative Commons License RJB-CSIC CC BY-NC-SA. Link.
Fig. 2.2: Charred ancient Maya plant remains from the site of Marco Gonzalez on Ambergis Caye. Photo: Lindsay Duncan.
Fig. 2.3: Grass phytoliths from the Maya site of Marco Gonzalez in Ambergis Caye. Photo: Lindsay Duncan.
Fig. 2.4: Weedy seeds and achenes from the milpas at Cerén. Slotten et al. 2020, fig. 5.
Fig. 2.5: Micromorphology, thin sections. Peyre Blanque Archaeological Project, 2014. Photo: Rachel Kulick. Link.
Fig. 2.6: Satellite image of flood recessional canal pattern spanning the Western Lagoon north of Chau Hiix (Belize). Montgomery 2016: fig. 9 (Base image: DigitalGlobe). Link.
Fig. 2.7: Hydraulic developments of marshes for intensive agriculture near the center of Naachtun. The white network corresponds to a system of channels that connected cultivated fields whereas the blue areas show water reservoirs. Projet Naachtun / C. Castanet. Link.
Fig. 2.8: Detail of a cacao tree on a Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase. Museo Popol Vuh, Guatemala City. Photo, Kerr: 5615. Drawing: Simon Martin.
SECTION 3: Maya Agrarian System
Photo: Tikal reservoire system. Anxo Miján Maroño (Transacos 3D). Modeled in collaboration with: Andrés Armesto, Alejandro Soriano, Carlos Paz, Diego Blanco. Link.
Fig. 3.1: Human modification of the environment in the Maya lowlands. Modified from Turner and Sabloff 2012: Fig. 2.
Fig. 3.2: Maya low density agrarian-based urbanism. Ford and Nigh 2015.
Fig. 3.3: Reconstruction drawing of a patio group at Aguateca by Takeshi Inomata. Inomata and Houston 2009: 225.
Fig. 3.4: The Structure of the Maya Forest Garden, El Pilar. Modified from Ford 2009: Fig. 4.
SECTION 4: The Milpa
Photo: Modern milpa field. User: LI1324/Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License.
Fig. 4.1: Fig. 4.1: Representation of maize and milpa in the Madrid Codex (detail), p. 25.
Fig. 4.2: Evolution of a milpa through time. Toledo et al 2013: fig 2. Illustration by Pablo Alarcon-Chaires.
Fig. 4.3: Evolution of aMilpa through time. Illustration by Patrice Bonnafoux.
Fig. 4.4: Milpa rotation. Adapted by Patrice Bonnafoux, from Harrison 2000: 76.
Fig. 4.5: Yucatec Maya multiple use of natural resources. Toledo et al 2013: fig. 3. Illustration by Pablo Alarcon-Chaires.
SECTION 5: Terrace farming
Photo: Quixaya, Guatemala. Courtesy of Tree, Water, People. Link.
Fig. 5.1: Terrace profile. Adapted by Patrice Bonnafoux from Harrison 2000: fig. 119.
Fig. 5.2: Detail of a terrace. Adapted by Patrice Bonnafoux from Harrison 2000: fig. 120.
Fig. 5.3: Terracing, water retention and soil erosion. Adapted by Patrice Bonnafoux from Saiz et al 2016. Graphic: SLA-Design. Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. Link.
Fig. 5.4: Image taken from LiDAR data showing part of the site of Caracol and the extent of agricultural terracing. Chase et al. 2012: Fig. 5 (PNAS Permitted general use).
Fig. 5.5: 2.5D LiDAR of epicentral portion of Caracol. Chase et al 2014: fig. 5.
SECTION 6: Wetland farming
Photo: Albion Island, Belize. Google Map 2020. Imagery: CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies, Map Data 2020.
Fig. 6.1: Chinampas. Australian Museum. Life among the Aztecs. September 2014 – February 2015. Documentation of Aztecs Exhibition Image: Stuart Humphreys.
Fig. 6.2: The development of wetland fields in northern Belize. Modified from Beach et al 2019: Fig. 2.
Fig. 6.3: Aerial view of the sites of Chan Cahal and Bird of Paradise. Luzzadder-Beach et al. 2012: fig. 1. Photographs: A. Padilla, Ecological Communications Corporation, Austin, TX and S.L.-B.
Fig. 6.4: LiDAR survey showing the extent of the area of the Birds of Paradise Fields. Modified from Beach et al. 2019: Fig. 3 (PNAS Permitted general use).
SECTION 7: Water Management Systems
Photo: Cenote, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo: Emilian Danaila. Pixabay.
Fig. 7.1: Sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza. Alamy Photos.
Fig. 7.2: Representation of the water collection system in the Tikal reservoirs. Anxo Miján Maroño (TRASANCOS 3D). Modeled in collaboration with Andrés Armesto, Alejandro Soriano, Carlos Paz, Diego Blanco. Link.
SECTION 8: Soil Fertilisers
Photo: Maya Milpa.