Talk About Old-School: New Study Shows the Mayans were Environmentalists 3,000 Years Ago

mayan temple forest photo

Photo: Flickr, CC
They Practiced Forest Conservation for a While
Young environmentalists might think "old school green" means hippies from the 1960s, but that's actually quite recent compared to what the Mayans were doing 3,000 years ago. A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science concludes that the ancient Mayans not only practiced effective forest management and conservation, but also that when they abandoned the practice, it was detrimental to their entire civilization (those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it). Read on for more details.
mayan temple forest photo

Photo: Public domain
When They Stopped Good Forest Management, Things Went South
The researchers discovered that Mayans were prohibited from cutting trees in certain areas until the Late Classic period when Jasaw Chan K'awiil beat the Tikal Maya and took over. The reconstruction of the city of Tikal required a lot of resources, and the new rulers decided to tap into the off-limit forests to find the tall straight trees they needed. Science Daily writes:

The stands of virgin timber were more than 200 years old in some areas. After building a few of the temples, the Maya ran out of timber from the Manilkara zapota (sapodilla) tree, so they switched to an inferior tree —Haematoxylon campechianum, logwood or inkwood — which is found in swamps. [...]

"When you clear all the forests, it changes the hydrologic cycle," says Lentz. "The world is like a flat surface with all the trees acting as sponges on it. The trees absorb the water. Without the trees, there is no buffer to stop the water from runoff. That causes soil erosion, which then chokes the rivers and streams. With no trees, you lose water retention in the soil or aquifers so the ground dries up and then there is less transpiration, so therefore less rainfall as well."

"Forests provide many benefits to society," says Lentz. "The Maya forests provided timber, fuel, food, fiber and medicine in addition to the ecosystem services of cleansing the air and water. Just as forests provided essential resources for the ancient Maya, the same is true for our civilization today."

mayan temple forest photo

Photo: Wikipedia, CC
Let's Not Repeat History
The Mayans might not have been doing forest conservation for the same reasons we are - they knew a lot, but didn't have our level of understanding of the physical world - but the result was the same. When they destabilized the ecosystems on which they relied, bad things started to happen.

I certainly hope we've learned a few things since then... After all, Earth is just a big Easter Island.

Via Science Daily
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