Skip to main content

Learning from the Ancients

A leading archaeologist's take on the pre-European Maya discounts 'ecocide' and suggests the people were actually astute stewards of the jungle who could teach us a thing or two.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Gazing at the famous Mayan pyramids of Chichén-Itzá, it's hard not to be mesmerized by the colossal limestone structures rising out of an expansive green lawn. It makes for a great photo, although the scene is missing a key feature from when those pyramids rose: a tropical rainforest canopy.

In fact, that absent forest is the focal point of the widely accepted theory explaining the Maya's downfall.

To the majority of archaeologists, anthropologists and Maya scholars, the collapse of the Maya civilization 1,000 years ago is best summed up by three words: slash and burn. According to the prevailing wisdom, by laying bare the resource-rich rainforests of the Yucatan Peninsula, the most advanced civilization in the Western Hemisphere destroyed its lifeblood, initiating a downward spiral of chronic food shortages that sent this once flourishing culture to its demise.

This thesis was a central part of UCLA scientist Jared Diamond's bestseller, Collapse, which considers the Maya example — as well as the Anasazi, Easter Islanders and even the Vikings — an ecological warning for our civilization as it contemplates ecocide.

But Anabel Ford, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has an alternate view of the Maya experience. Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology last fall, Ford and colleague Ronald Nigh suggest that the deforestation normally attributed to human agricultural practices is best explained by periods of alternating drought and floods. As evidence they point to local pollen and soil data they collected.

The Mayan ruins of Chichén-Itzá on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula were once covered in a lush forest canopy. Prevailing thought has deforestation as the cause of Maya’s downfall, but one researcher has another theory: The Maya didn’t raze the forest, but adapted with it. (

The Mayan ruins of Chichén-Itzá on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula were once covered in a lush forest canopy. Prevailing thought has deforestation as the cause of Maya’s downfall, but one researcher has another theory: The Maya didn’t raze the forest, but adapted with it. (

According to Ford, not only did the Maya not raze the forests, they adapted to the climate by changing the vegetation's makeup to enhance the productivity of certain plants. Ford argues that what was "previously interpreted as evidence of the Maya denuding the forest, can be reinterpreted as evidence of forest management in the form of the Maya Forest Garden."

Ever since discovering the ancient city of El Pilar in 1983, Ford has been on a crusade to debunk the idea that the forest was most useful to the Maya when it was cleared for open farmland.

"There was this notion that if you're against cutting and burning, you're just not going to survive. You've gotta cut or you've gotta burn. You've got to mark your space if you're a human being living there," says the director of the university's MesoAmerican Research Center.

Ford prefers "select and grow." The idea had been in her mind for some time but rose to the surface five years ago after heavy rains caused her personal forest garden to explode in growth.

"That 'select and grow' idea is so simple," Ford says. "You see a tree with big green fruits (we call it avocado now) and you see another one with thorns, which would you choose? Just think logically."

Unlike the irrigated, industrialized farms of today, the Maya forest garden was a "tree-dominated agricultural field" cultivated to produce species able to sustain a diversity of human needs including food, shelter and medicine.

Ford's simple yet elegant hypothesis is supported by local botanists and ecologists who point out that 90 percent of the plants in this forest are still useful.

You won't need a time machine, just a sturdy vehicle, to see a forest garden in action today; one's been developed at El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, an archaeological site on the Guatemala-Belize border.

Ford has said that at its peak, between A.D. 600 and 900, El Pilar — the name refers to a watering basin and reflects the unusual amount of groundwater in the vicinity — was home to at least 20,000. Inspired by that precedent and by drawing from the vast knowledge of modern-day Maya farmers, Ford's nonprofit Exploring Solutions Past — Maya Forest Alliance is helping to halt deforestation and the expansion of ploughed fields and cattle pastures pushing deeper into the forest.

A key component of the practice is known as "milpa," a four-stage, 20-year agricultural cycle. At first, a section of forest is cleared to cultivate a low canopy of maize, beans and squash over herbs, tubers and other plants, which help reduce pests and enhance moisture retention. After two to three years, it gets replaced by quick-growing fruit trees like papaya and plantain, followed by slower growers like avocado, mango and citrus. When the fruit trees mature five years later, hardwood trees like cedar and mahogany are planted along side them, ultimately returning the land to its former glory.

This technique certainly is no quick fix, but Ford's research has found that the ancient's forest management practices succeeded in sustaining three to nine times the number of people as modern agriculture. This suggests that beyond serving as an example for the local communities of the Yucatan, the forest garden offers a conservation model for the rest of the world

In a world facing food and water crises, species loss and resource depletion, Ford says it's just not enough to pin all our hopes on genetic engineering and other high-tech answers. Ford isn't anti-technology, but believes our ultimate survival requires considering all the ways human beings have dealt with challenges to their existence.

"The Maya offer a proven strategy completely different from the Western industrial mono crop technology. They have achieved a sustainable land-use system, demonstrating an agricultural approach that functions in accordance with nature — an alternative to the human-centered perspective — one that works with natural systems to produce a bounty of food and embraces conservation. And this is a system that underwrote the Maya civilization and survived 500 years after the Spanish conquest. What more reason do we need?"

In fact, there is one thing — a project launched by Ford herself, which may prove equally significant. In 1998, Ford managed to convince the governments of Belize and Guatemala to establish a peace park in the 5,000-acre El Pilar Archaelogical Reserve, a parcel of land that bridges their shared border - a line that's been in dispute since the 1700s,

Thanks to her extensive lobbying with representatives of the two countries — she was named an associate laureate in the 2000 Rolex Awards for her efforts — Ford succeeded in getting both parties to sign an agreement in October 2008 promising to collaborate in the management of the park. The world's first archaelogical peace park, El Pilar is a metaphor for collaboration — that might can inspire similar actions in other countries.

"We tend to look to science to resolve current problems, but research cannot afford to ignore past successes when our world's fate is at stake," Ford says. "The El Pilar peace park would honor the one resource common to both nations - peace through archaeology."