New light on Ancient Maya sustainable farming

The approach of 2012 is bringing increased attention on the ancient Maya civilisation of Belize and her neighbours, and, as usual with this fascinating, enigmatic civilisation, there are more questions than answers.

One of the big questions is: how did Maya urban centres sustain such large populations in areas modern people would consider to be inhospitable?

Consider that the Maya lowlands of Belize were estimated to have a population density of some 300 Maya per square kilometre at the civilisation’s height.

By comparison, in 2005 China had 140 people per km2; the United States had 32, England 255 and Australia 3. Present day Belize has about 14.

All we know for sure is that the ancient Maya did feed a large and sometimes concentrated population, and that people were healthy, depicted as robust even, and this went on for a relatively long time.

But how?

Obviously, one of the first things to look at is agriculture, and research quoted in the September 2011 edition of Popular Archaeology does this in some detail, presenting data compiled by researchers from Cleveland State University, University of Nevada and the PaleoResearch Institute along with Q’eqchi Maya authorities and traditional healers.

After conducting research in Belize, near the Bladen Branch region of the southern Maya Mountains, the teams arrived at several conclusions, pointing towards “a method of intense cultivation that is quite distinct from the way in which terraces have traditionally been seen as being used,” and that both food and medicinal plants were grown together in terraces. This contradicts previous theories of more common single crop agriculture.

The terraces themselves are thought to be a highly efficient way to grow crops while replenishing the soil. According to the team’s findings in the Popular Archaeology report; “not only was a unique soil enrichment process involving slope soil catchment, burning and flooding being utilized to maintain soil fertility but a myriad of plants were being grown on these terraces.”

Interestingly, this seems close to practices becoming more popular with organic and other gardeners today in areas such as French Intensive and permaculture.

It also appears that the ancient Maya maintained their own family gardens for both sustenance and medicine, and that their medicinal plants are the same ones used by traditional Maya healers today.

Maya agriculture has been the subject of studies and debate for years, but it is generally accepted that the ancient Maya farmers utilised four main techniques – slash and burn (or swidden), raised fields, irrigation and the aforementioned terracing.

It had previously been assumed that the ancient Maya employed clear-cutting of trees and wild vegetation to plant crops, and some researchers theorised that this led to deforestation and was one of the environmental factors behind the sudden decline and disappearance of the Maya civilisation.

However, there are other views, and research conducted by Dr Anabel Ford of the MesoAmerican Research Centre at the University of California, Santa Barbara, supports one of the more interesting scenarios.

Dr Ford has been promoting the theory that the ancient Maya practiced a form of agro-forestry as their method of farming.

Agro-forestry involves preserving the trees and much of the vegetation of surrounding forests and growing food and medicinal plants among the wild flora. This practice, combined with decentralised farming, growing small plots in tandem with larger field crops, would have had numerous benefits.

Dr Ford refers to this as the Maya Forest Garden, an intriguing model in contrast to more modern, destructive farming practices and one which may have valuable lessons for us today, in that, “ the ancient Maya worked with their tropical environment, as opposed to transfiguring it, and by doing so created a flourishing civilization sustained by the natural rainforest ecosystem,”  as Dr Ford said.

The recent work by the research teams at the Bladen Branch region in southern Belize and their confirmation that the Maya grew mixed crops supports Dr Ford’s hypothesis, and the researchers quoted in Popular Archaeology say they expect that there will be more findings, and hope that, “an entirely forgotten method by which the ancient Maya managed to harness the environment to sustain large populations may be further clarified, and perhaps applied to benefit people today, particularly the contemporary Maya, through sustainable healthful nutritional and medicinal plant growing scenarios.”

The Maya Organic Farm at Chaa Creek is proof that many ancient Maya techniques are not entirely “forgotten” as that relatively small plot of land produces food for the Chaa Creek restaurant and other local kitchens. Chaa Creek proprietor and long-time farmer Mick Fleming feels that there is still much to be learned from ancient Maya farmers.

“We began Chaa Creek as a farm,” he recalls, “And at first we pretty much stuck with what we knew – the more European farming practices. However, we quickly learned more traditional techniques from our neighbours, whose methods had changed little over the years. Bit by bit we came to see that there was more than just tradition behind many of the things local farmers did – in fact, they were very effective, and that there were more natural ways to increase crop yields and deter pests and that sort of thing.

“Now, with our own experience from the Maya Organic farm, and with the sort of research people like Anabel Ford are doing, Maya farming practices are becoming better known and, I hope, will be more widely practiced.

“When you consider the number of people they fed, and over how long a period of time, well, it’s obvious they were doing something right,” Mr Fleming said.

Over the course of the next year, Chaa Creek will be presenting more information about all aspects of the ancient Maya of Belize and hosting workshops and seminars in a variety of disciplines. Maya agriculture will continue to be a hot topic and we are looking forward to more information coming to light.

There is still much to be learned from this most advanced of ancient civilisations, and perhaps 2012 will be the Year of the Maya.

Stay tuned…

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