Magazine article E Magazine

Eco-Archaeology: Forward into the Past

Magazine article E Magazine

Eco-Archaeology: Forward into the Past

Article excerpt

How did the ancient Maya do it? While today a few hundred thousand descendants of the Maya survive with difficulty, the ancient community of two million developed a subsistence economy and a sophisticated political framework without destroying the rainforest for over 13 centuries.

"Old school" scientists still spend most of their time unearthing core sites and deciphering hieroglyphs. The new breed of "evolutionist" archaeologists got their start in the 1960s by investigating large areas around dig sites (their "suburbs," so to speak), studying human interaction at all strata of society and gathering plant and animal evidence. The practice is known as eco-archaeology.

"How a particular society adapts and relates to its environment helps explain why it has a particular size or form," says Dr. Barbara Price, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. She adds that excavating tombs and temples can only go so far to explain the rise and fail of a civilization. Other important factors are "what constituted a household, how did the population make a living, and how was land distributed."

Monumental projects like the Maya temples, the pyramids of Egypt or England's Stonehenge were built by complex societies, eco-archaeologists say, with a practical organization of labor, productive farmlands, and industries that sustainably produced building materials.

The practical application of eco-archaelogy is epitomized at El Pilar, the recently discovered and monumental Maya site straddling Belize and Guatemala. …

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