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Interaction Between the Ancient Maya of Tikal and Their Local Environment

With support from the National Science Foundation, principal investigator (PI) David Lentz (biological sciences), co-PI Nicholas Dunning (geography) and co-PI Vernon Scarborough (anthropology), along with an international team of scientists, will conduct two seasons of archaeological and paleoenvironmental field research at the Tikal site in northern Guatemala.

Date: 7/20/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826

UC ingot   The purpose of this study is to establish a greater understanding of the interaction between the ancient Maya of Tikal and their local environment. Of particular interest will be the forest resources required to build and sustain their great city and the nature and complexity of the water management system in the site core and the surrounding area.

Maya tree glyphs.
Maya tree glyphs

The primary theoretical question to be addressed in this study focuses on the lingering concern of how the ancient Maya in the northern Petén were able to sustain large populations in the midst of a tropical forest environment during the Late Classic period. A corollary to this question asks how agricultural intensification was achieved and how other essential resources, such as water and forest products, were managed.

In particular, the team is interested in the development of irrigation systems at Tikal as they contributed to agricultural activity, forest clearance and exploitation of the seasonal wetlands. All of these activities were essential components of an initially sustainable land use strategy that eventually failed to meet the demands of an escalating population. 

Nick Dunning.
Nick Dunning is examining one of the soil cores and is evaluating and describing the layers using a standardized color chart.

This spiraling disconnect with sound ecological principles, coupled with the potentially exacerbating factor of climate change, undoubtedly contributed to the Maya "collapse." Furthermore, it is hypothesized that the reservoirs and small lakes of Tikal served as a fulcrum of political leverage and concentrated social power.

Testing these hypotheses will provide insights that will broaden understanding of the rise of social complexity, the expansion of the Maya political economy specifically and, in general terms, the trajectory of cultural evolution. Moreover, this investigation will provide data vital to answering one of the greatest and enduring mysteries of the ancient Maya civilization: the role of land use activities as they contributed to the rise and fall of Maya urban centers.

Professors Scarborough, Lentz and Dunning
Professors Scarborough, Lentz and Dunning

The broader impacts of the study can be observed in five specific goals relating to archaeological research and education. The goals are

  1. to advance discovery in archaeology while promoting hands-on training, teaching and learning, 
  2. to complete all aspects of this investigation and disseminate the results broadly, 
  3. to enhance the infrastructure for research and education through the teaching of a geoarchaeology field methods class for University of Cincinnati graduate and undergraduate students, as well as students from other U.S. and Guatemalan universities, 
  4. to broaden participation from underrepresented groups in science by offering opportunities for field research to urban scholars and underrepresented minorities where none currently exist, and
  5. to accrue benefits to society through the generation of advanced understanding of environmental issues across broad time scales and through the training of a new diverse cadre of environmental archaeologists who will become the leaders and teachers of tomorrow.

Photo by Kim Thompson, grad student in Biological Sciences.
Here David Lentz is talking with a Maya family about their plant use practices. 'The son up in the tree of their dooryard garden just threw down some fruits of the sapodilla tree,' says Lentz, 'And I am examining and tasting them.'

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