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Tikal Talk

Three A&S professors do field research in Guatemala to better understand the ancient Maya of Tikal and their local environment.

Date: 7/20/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Vern Scarborough
Anthropology Professor and Department Head Vern Scarborough makes up one-third of the McMicken research trifecta who spent a few months this spring conducting field research in Guatemala about the ancient Mayan site of Tikal. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the three researchers collected archaeological and paleoenvironmental data to answer questions about the Mayans’ sustainability at Tikal, particularly regarding essential resource management.

Vern Scarborough.
Scarborough is an anthropology professor with research interests in water management of the archaic state.

You and two fellow UC professors went to Tikal, Guatemala to study the ancient Mayan people that once lived there. What’s so special about Tikal?

Tikal was one of the truly huge ancient Maya urban complexes and is now perhaps the most influential archaeological ruin in Central America. It is estimated to have had a population of perhaps 60-80,000 at AD 700 distributed over an area of about 120 km². We know a great deal about the standing architecture—pyramids, courtyards, palaces, ball courts, etc.—but much less about their relationships to their fragile semitropical environment.

What were the research group’s overall objectives of the trip?

To assess the manner by which the ancient Maya harvested their diverse natural resources—especially water and plant communities—in altering the engineered landscape through time. Because the Maya lasted as a highly complex society for well over 1500 years in this core area of the greater Yucatan Peninsula, our teams wanted to understand how that was made possible. Few societies have lasted as long as the ancient Maya, though they did “collapse” near the end of the ninth century—certainly in this core area. Our work is intent on understanding both their longevity in a very fragile environment and the severity of “fragmentation” that followed. What are the ecological lessons embedded in this course of history? How did climate change influence societal decision making? Are there ways of harvesting the environs—even in the most fragile settings—from which we might learn? We hope to contribute to the growing cross-disciplinary literature examining the issue of “sustainability.”

A Tikal temple.
The site of Tikal is in the middle of the Petén rainforest in northern Guatemala.

What was your specific research interests while there? How did you go about collecting data?

By examining ancient engineered water systems and landscapes, my work addresses societal sustainability issues from a comparative ecological perspective. At Tikal, our teams focused on the several reservoirs that the ancient Maya used to harvest and store their water supplies. Because the Maya area does not have truly significant perennial river systems, even though rainfall is seasonally heavy, people are highly dependent on reservoirs. For four months of the year only 5 percent of the annual precipitation is available, so without year-round river systems, residents must construct tanks—especially in the past. Our work involved formal excavation as well as soil coring, the latter involving the removal of narrow cylinders of sediment in reconstructing the depositional history of the greater site. From these probes we are able to reconstruct the environment at any one time but through time. Pollen, related plant materials, datable organics, textural studies of the soils all contribute to our reconstruction of an evolving landscape and its implication for the society responsible.    

How important was the collaboration with David Lentz of Biology and Nick Dunning of Geography?

This was absolutely crucial and sets our study apart from all previous studies. UC is extremely fortunate to have two of the very best archaeologists treating ancient neotropical environments. Nick Dunning is the best soil scientist with an archaeological focus working in the Maya Lowlands, and David Lentz is the best archaeobotanical specialist working in Central America. Together with my interest in water management, we triangulate in ways that no other university setting can allow. This research collaboration—both topically and spatially—is unique.

Tikal draining patterns.
This 3-D drawing shows the drainage patterns and reservoirs of Tikal.

What key research did you discover at Tikal?

We confirmed the presence of two of the largest dams known in the Maya area. The first well-defined two-meter deep canal draining into one of the larger reservoirs was excavated. A complicated switching station for both out taking waters as well as infilling waters for a tank was identified. Even the construction of a reservoir basin lining was found. The role of ancient springs—known to be associated with “purity”—was suggested. Most importantly, we were able to identify a water system.

What’s next for your research group?

Really, more of the same. I do anticipate greater focus on the earlier periods of Tikal’s landscaping history and attempting to correlated water management construction episodes with both climatic periods of drought as well as climatic inundation thresholds.

Read more about UC's efforts in Tikal:

UC Scientists Determine That Ancient Maya Practiced Forest Conservation — 3,000 Years Ago

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