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Researchers Unlock Ancient Maya Secrets With Modern Soil Science

Nov. 12, 2012 After emerging sometime before 1000 BC, the Maya rose to become the most advanced Pre-Columbian society in the Americas, thriving in jungle cities of tens of thousands of eo le, such as the one in !uatemala"s #i$al %ational Par$& But after reaching its ea$ bet'een ()0 and *00 A+, the Maya civili,ation began to 'ane and e-actly 'hy has been an enduring mystery to scientists&

Writing in the Nov.-Dec. issue of the Soil Science of America Journal (SSSA-J), an interdisciplinary team led by Richard Terry, a righam !oung "niversity soil scientist, no# describes its analysis of mai$e agriculture in the soils of Ti%al. Not surprisingly, the study uncovered evidence for ma&or mai$e production in lo#land areas, #here erosion is less li%ely and agriculture #as presumably more sustainable for this community of an estimated '(,((( people. ut the team also discovered evidence of erosion in upslope soils, suggesting that farming did spread to steeper, less suitable soils over time. )nd if *aya agriculture did cause substantial erosion, the soil loss could eventually have undercut the *aya+s ability to gro# food, say the researchers. The findings are &ust the latest e,ample of ho# invisible artifacts in soil -- something archeologists literally used to brush aside -- can inform studies of past civili$ations. That+s because art#or% and buildings can crumble over time and &ungles #ill eventually conceal ancient farm fields, but -the soil chemistry is still there,- Terry says. .e e,plains, for e,ample, that most forest vegetation native to Ti%al uses a photosynthetic path#ay called /0, #hile mai$e uses a path#ay called /1. The soil organic matter derived from these t#o path#ays also differs, allo#ing researchers to ma%e conclusions about the types of plants that #ere gro#ing in the soils they test. Thus, by analy$ing soils in different areas of Ti%al as #ell as loo%ing at the layers that had formed in the soils, Terry and his collaborators #ere able to map the areas #here ancient mai$e production occurred, including lo#land -ba&o- areas and possibly steeper slopes, as more food #as needed. 2uestions li%e this about past farming practices have al#ays interested archeologists, Terry notes. ut the tools of modern soil science are no# enabling these scientists to as% increasingly sophisticated 3uestions about ho# ancient peoples tried to sustain themselves -and #hether their treatment of the land #as a factor in cases #here they failed. -4These tools5 open us up to thin%ing about the #orld in #ays that #e haven+t before,- Terry says. -We have changed the paradigm amongst the archaeologists.The research appearing in SSSA-J #as funded by grants from the National 6cience 7oundation and righam !oung "niversity