Temple Mountains, Sacred Lakes, and Fertile Fields: Ancient Maya Landscapes in Northwestern Belize

Article excerpt

'Intimate knowledge of historical sources, archaeological sites, biogeography and ecology, and the processes of geomorphology must be fused in patient field studies, so that we may read the changes in habitability through human time for the lands in which civilization first took form'

SAUER 1955:61


Forty-three years later these words still ring true, but are too seldom followed (Fedick 1996). For several years, we have been engaged in a multidisciplinary programme of research in northwestern Belize and neighbouring areas of Guatemala, eliciting a comprehensive, integrated picture of changing ancient Maya landscapes (Scarborough & Dunning 1996; Valdez et al. 1997). Our goals include a reconstructive correlation of environmental and cultural history, including the relationship between changes in water and land management and political economic organization. This work is still in progress and our understanding is far from complete (Dunning & Scarborough 1997).

This article centres on changing landscapes at the major centres of La Milpa and Dos Hombres and surrounding lands [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. These centres lie within the Three Rivers region, where the Rio Azul, Rio Bravo and Booth's River converge to form the Rio Hondo on the eastern periphery of the Central Maya Lowlands (Adams 1995a). Recent work, partly covered here, focuses on the course of human-environment interactions in this region. However, in studying human-environment relationships 'nature' cannot be taken only as a self-evident object available for human management. Nature as an object for human action is mediated by culture. In turn, culture cannot be seen as unitary, bounded and internally homogeneous. Both individual and group perceptions shaped human-environment actions and may be manifest in the landscape. How nature was rendered culturally intelligible by landscape manipulation had important consequences for whose 'voices' are heard and whose claims are legitimated amid struggles over the control of vital resources (Bender 1992; Thomas 1993).

The ancient landscapes created by the Maya included both intentional and unintentional environmental changes. Intentional changes included the centrally directed erection of monumental architecture as well as the accretionary engineering of the landscape by generations of farmers. Unintentional effects included sometimes devastating soil loss and hydrological changes. Both the intentional and unintentional must be read for the landscape to provide a more comprehensive picture of Maya civilization.

Our research views landscape as a layered artefact, reflecting cumulative processes of human action and environmental change. The later phases of modification will generally be the most readily discernable to investigators. Thus, our discussion here gives particular emphasis to the landscape which took shape between AD 700 and 900 (the later part of the Late Classic and first part of the Terminal Classic periods).

The Three Rivers region

The Three Rivers region includes the eastern margins of the large Peten karst plateau, a hydrologically elevated limestone area characterized by rugged free-draining uplands and seasonally-inundated, clay-filled depressions (bajos) (Dunning et al. in press). It also includes the generally low-lying valleys of the Rio Bravo and Booth's River that encompass low, limestone ridges and large, perennial wetlands. The La Milpa site centre is situated on a topographically prominent ridge of the upland plateau; the Dos Hombres site centre occupies a low, but locally prominent rise amid the Rio Bravo lowlands.

Soils on the limestone uplands are fertile, but shallow clay mollisols or rendzinas, which are vulnerable to erosion where they occur on sloping terrain (Dunning 1992a). Bajo and lowland soils are deep clay vertisols, mollisols and organic mucks (histosols). These soils are also often fertile, but subject to significant drainage limitations or shrink-swell (argilloturbation) problems. …