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Heat, Jaguars and Drug Traffickers Add Extra Challenge
to Mayan Research

Date: July 22, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos: Courtesy of Nicholas Dunning
Archive: Research News


Tourists who have visited the Maya tourist destinations of Tulum, Chichen Itza or Uxmal know that the heat can be daunting, not to mention the towering heights of the sites' Native American pyramids. A trip to the top of a 50- to 180-foot pyramid is often accompanied by relentless sun and temperatures reaching into the high 90s and 100s.

Imagine exploring these sites when they were still hidden by the jungle overgrowth with no clear or easy access. That's the kind of environment that UC researchers Nicholas Dunning and Vernon Scarborough face while investigating lowland Maya sites in northwestern Belize and northern Guatemala.

Heat, jungle overgrowth, unrestored ruins, local wildlife and even drug traffickers all present challenges to Dunning, a geographer, and Scarborough, an anthropologist, as they work to understand the ancient civilization of the Maya.

While tourists may see restored pyramids and cleared city views at Tulum or Chichen Itza, it's hard to see much of anything yet at La Milpa in Belize, one of the sites where Dunning and Scarborough have worked during the past several years.

"The visibility is probably the biggest problem," says Dunning. "Everything is overgrown, so it's difficult to get much perspective on the landscape." Getting there is not necessarily a challenge, according to Dunning. For La Milpa, he flies into Belize City and has a two- or three-hour drive to camp. "There is usually a main road accessible for cars. It is not unpaved road until the very end." To get to Yaxha, another site where Dunning has worked, he flies into Flores, Guatemala, and drives to the camp within an hour.

Once there, however, is when the challenge begins. Getting from the central camp to the bajo test sites can be daunting. Usually local workers must be hired to chop out trails using chainsaws and machetes. "Generally we've had to reopen old logging roads to get to them," the UC geographer says.

YaxhaThe faculty and student researchers tend to concentrate their work in the dry season from March to May. That means temperatures generally rise to the high 90s during the day and drop only to the mid-70s at night. "There was one night where the low was 97 degrees. I didn't sleep at all. You don't cool off when the temperature is one degree below your normal body temperature," Dunning says. "Some days, it's 110 degrees with high humidity."

With such extreme temperatures, the workday is scheduled around the heat. Researchers wake up at 5:30 a.m., and the team is in the field by 7 a.m. The day's investigation usually ends at 3 p.m. "because by 1, it's dreadfully hot," Dunning says.

Of course, the camps do not have air conditioning. Shower facilities are primitive. At La Milpa, there are showers where water is pumped into a gravity fed spout. There are outhouses without water for toilets. "Every one has sanitation duties of one sort or another," Dunning explains. At Yaxha, it is more luxurious - one building has plumbing, including a toilet.

In addition to the challenges presented by overgrowth, weather and plumbing, the researchers must beware of some of the same wildlife the Maya encountered. Dunning recalls when one graduate student from another institution came face to face with a jaguar during one of her daily jogs at La Milpa. "It was during the season in 1997. She liked to run in the late afternoons the three miles from the camp to the site's center. One afternoon, a large jaguar popped out of a looter's trench, growled at her and proceeded to follow her back to camp. It was a slow trot for him and full steam for her. He certainly could've caught her, but he never tried," Dunning says. "She ran in to the middle of camp, collapsed on the ground and started babbling about jaguars. At first, I thought she had heat stroke."

Later, the team drove a truck back to the trench and discovered the runner had interrupted the jaguar's dinner. The feline was back in the ditch, feeding on a deer it had felled.

Even more dangerous than jaguars are drug traffickers. Dunning's colleagues who work in Guatemala have sometimes found effigies of themselves strung up by marijuana cultivators to frighten them away. These traffickers sometimes like to plant a marijuana crop and while waiting for it to grow, dig tunnels to loot the Maya ruins. "They definitely don't like archaeologists around for that," says Dunning. "Something similar was going on at LaMilpa in the 1980s, before we started working there."

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