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Rescuing ancient Maya history from the plow

Saving the Ancient Maya History of the Plow

What was once jungle is now a treeless expanse of farmland. Photos from 2010 and 2014. Credit: VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH (2022)

Things have changed since I was last in Belize in 2018, when I excavated the ancestral Mayan pilgrimage site of Cara Blanca. Thousands of acres of jungle have disappeared, replaced by fields of corn and sugar cane. Hundreds of ancestral Mayan hills are now visible in the treeless landscape, covered in soil that is currently plowed several times a year.

In fact, many non-Mayans focus their farming efforts on sites with a lot of hills, because they know that the ancestral Maya chose the best soil. Before the Spanish conquest of the 1520s, generations of Maya built their homes in the same locations over and over again. I have excavated homes where Mayan families have lived for 800 years or more. These places yield stories layer upon layer. So every time farmers plow, they erase a generation or more of history, cultural heritage and knowledge.

Saving the Ancient Maya History of the Plow

Anthropology professor Lisa Lucero and her colleagues are working to record the history of Mayan ruins before plowing them up. Credit: C. Taylor/VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH (2022)

To live in this region for thousands of years, the Maya had to develop lasting relationships with local water sources, forests and soils. I want to know what we can learn from their experience and knowledge that is relevant to our own sustainable future.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a salvage archaeological project here in Belize. The goal is to collect as much information as possible before plowing the mounds away. My colleagues and I have lost two seasons to the pandemic. I don’t want to think about how much history we’ve lost. We just have to move forward.

  • Saving the Ancient Maya History of the Plow

    Google map with mounds mapped in 2014 and 2016. White spots are unmapped Mayan mounds. Credit: VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH (2022)

  • Saving the Ancient Maya History of the Plow

    Drone image of various sizes of exposed Maya mounds. Credit: VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH (2022)

  • Saving the Ancient Maya History of the Plow

    Aerial view of excavations in 2022. See our field wagon for scale. Credit: VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH (2022)

With permission from the Belize Institute of Archeology and farmers of Spanish Lookout, a modernized Mennonite town, we excavate as many mounds as possible. I have to learn about “plough archeology” and, even more challenging, how to interpret the plowed architecture.

Plowing reconfigures some hills, leaving a confusing footprint that we can only try to translate. However, I have a great team, including my Anthropology Ph.D. students Rachel Gill and Yifan Wang; and a crew from the Valley of Peace Village, including foremen Cleofo Choc, Stanley Choc, and Ernesto Vasquez, and 13 field assistants.

We are just starting to scratch the (plowed) surface.


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Provided by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Quote: Saving Ancient Maya History from the Plow (2022, June 22) retrieved June 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-ancient-maya-history-plow.html

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