Soil analysis unlocks secrets of ancient Maya
Analysis of soils of Guatemala's Tikal National Park has shed light on why Maya civilization began to wane after reaching its peak between 250 and 900 AD.
The study by an interdisciplinary team, led by Richard Terry, a Brigham Young University soil scientist, uncovered evidence for major maize production in lowland areas, where erosion is less likely and agriculture was presumably more sustainable for this community of an estimated 60,000 people.
But the team also discovered evidence of erosion in upslope soils, suggesting that farming did spread to steeper, less suitable soils over time.
And if Maya agriculture did cause substantial erosion, the soil loss could eventually have undercut the Maya's ability to grow food, said the researchers.
The findings are just the latest example of how invisible artifacts in soil-something archeologists literally used to brush aside-can inform studies of past civilizations.
That's because artwork and buildings can crumble over time and jungles will eventually conceal ancient farm fields, but "the soil chemistry is still there," Terry said.
The study was reported in the Nov.-Dec. issue of the Soil Science of America Journal (SSSA-J).