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Monday, September 3, 2012

Ancient Maya Practiced Forest Conservation

Image 1: This temple in Tikal, labeled "Temple 1" by researchers, was built by the ancient Maya somewhere between 682 and 734 A.D., and was possibly completed after Jasaw Chan K'awiil's death. It was the second temple built in the area.

Image 2: Nick Dunning, Vern Scarborough and David Lentz (l-r) take a soil core to measure the depth of one of several large reservoirs that surround the site of Tikal, the ancient Maya city. Lentz was principal investigator for a National Science Foundation-supported study at the site.

Image 3: This temple in Tikal, labeled "Temple 5" by researchers, was built by the ancient Maya somewhere between 768 and 780 A.D.

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David Lentz, a biology professor at the University of Cincinnati (UC), received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the interaction between the ancient Maya of Tikal and their local environment.

Lentz's research found that the Maya practiced forest conservation early on. They were not allowed to cut down certain forests of virgin timber--some of which were over 200 years old--which the researchers dubbed the "sacred groves." "From our research we have learned that the Maya were deliberately conserving forest resources," says Lentz. "Their deliberate conservation practices can be observed in the wood they used for construction and this observation is reinforced by the pollen record." But later, the Maya abandoned this practice.

When Jasaw Chan K'awiil took over as ruler during the Late Classic period, the Maya rebuilt the city of Tikal. This rebuilding included construction of enormous temples that required large, straight trees whose wood could withstand the weight of tons of heavy stone. Lentz found that the Maya used the sacred groves for this purpose but soon ran out of timber, which came from the Manilkara zapota (or sapodilla) tree. Sapodilla wood is soft when first cut but once it dries it's as hard as iron, making it an ideal building material for the temples. Once the sapodilla were gone, the Maya began using inferior wood from the Haematoxylon campechianum (logwood or ink wood) trees. Logwood trees, which grow in swamps, are hard like iron from start to finish. The archways to the temples built using logwood were less ornate because the tree grows crooked and is not as lofty as the sapodilla.

The earlier temples (labeled 1 through 4 by the researchers) are quite large. The beams over the doorways (called Lintels) of Temple 4 are the largest of them all, whereas Temples 5 and 6 are much smaller. But Lentz found that for Temple 3, the last temple built, the Maya went back to using sapodilla. Lentz believes they may have replanted the sacred groves after cutting them down (after 40 years, you would have a tree large enough to use for building). Also, Lentz says, things began going downhill for the Maya at this point. "Perhaps they reasoned that the gods didn't like the new style of temple and they needed to return to the construction style of earlier, and more prosperous, times."

To learn more about this research, see the UC news story UC Scientists Determine That Ancient Maya Practiced Forest Conservation 3,000 Years Ago. [Research supported by NSF grant BCS 08-10118.]

(Date of Image: February/March 2009)

Credit: Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cincinnati

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