The Maya

  • Anabel FordEmail author
Living reference work entry

The conventional story of the magnificent Maya civilization ends after 2,000 years with environmental destruction and consequent disappearance of the people. This myth persists despite historical accounts to the contrary. Cortés, on his march to Lake Petén Itzá, describes the area as sufficiently populated to feed and house his retinue of more than 3,000 Mexica, gathered from Montezuma’s troops, and Spanish conquistadors under arms. Moreover, thirty centuries of population development in the Maya lowlands – stretching from Preclassic to Terminal Classic and through Colonial and present times – represent long-lasting continuity.

The source of Maya wealth lay in their landscape and their profound understanding of how to use it. In fact, the Maya’s subtle patterns of land use are embedded within the forest today. To understand the complex historical ecology of the Maya forest requires an examination of contemporary agroecology, traditional farming methods, and the paleoenvironmental...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Alexander, Rani T. 2006. Maya settlement shifts and Agrarian ecology in Yucatán. Journal of Anthropological Research 62: 23.Google Scholar
  2. Atran, Scott. 1993. Itza Maya tropical agro-forestry. Current Anthropology 34 (5): 633–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bullard, William R., Jr. 1960. Maya settlement pattern in Northeastern Petén, Guatemala. American Antiquity 25 (3): 355–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chase, Arlen F., et al. 2011. Airborne LiDAR, archaeology, and the ancient Maya landscape at Caracol, Belize. Journal of Archaeological Science 38: 387–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Coe, William R. 1990. Tikal Report No. 14 Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal V.1. Vol. 1: The University Museum.Google Scholar
  6. Conklin, Harold. 1957. Hanunóo agriculture: A report on an integral system of shifting cultivation in the Philippines. Rome, Italy: FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  7. Cortés, Hernán. 1985[1524]. Cartas de Relación. Madrid: Dastin, S.L.Google Scholar
  8. Culbert, T. Patrick, and Don Stephan Rice. 1990. Precolumbian population History in the Maya Lowlands. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.Google Scholar
  9. Farriss, Nancy M. 1992. Maya society under colonial rule: The collective enterprise of survival. In Princeton. New Jersey: University of Princeton Press.Google Scholar
  10. Fedick, Scott L. 1989. The economics of agricultural land use and settlement in the upper Belize river valley. In Prehistoric Maya economies of Belize, Research in Economic Anthropology, Supplement no. 4, ed. P.A. McAnany and B.L. Isaac, 215–254. Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar
  11. Fedick, Scott L., and Anabel Ford. 1990. The prehistoric agricultural landscape of the central Maya Lowlands: An examination of local variability in a regional context. World Archaeology 22: 18–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ford, Anabel. 1986. Population growth and social complexity: An examination of settlement and environment in the central Maya Lowlands. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.Google Scholar
  13. Ford, Anabel. 1996. Critical resource control and the rise of the classic period Maya. In The managed mosaic: Ancient Maya agriculture and resource use, ed. S.L. Fedick, 297–303. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press.Google Scholar
  14. Ford, Anabel, and Ronald Nigh. 2015. The Maya forest garden: Eight millennia of sustainable cultivation in the tropical woodlands. Santa Rosa, CA: Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
  15. Ford, Anabel, and William I. Rose. 1995. Volcanic ash in ancient Maya ceramics of the limestone Lowlands: Implications for prehistoric volcanic activity in the Guatemala highlands. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 66 (1–4): 149–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ford, Anabel, Keith C. Clarke, and Gary Raines. 2009. Modeling settlement patterns of the late classic Maya with Bayesian methods and GIS. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99 (3): 496–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gutiérrez, Zetina, María de Guadalupe, and Betty Bernice Faust. 2011. De la Agroecología a la Arqueología Demográfica: ¿Cuántas Casas por Familia? Estudios de Cultura Maya 38: 97–120.Google Scholar
  18. Hansen, Richard D. 2005. Perspective on Olmec-Maya interaction in the middle formative period. In New perspectives on formative Mesoamerican cultures, Vol. BAR International Series, ed. T.G. Powis, 51–72. Oxford, UK: Archaeopress.Google Scholar
  19. Haug, Gerald H., et al. 2001. Southward migration of the intertropical convergence zone through the Holocene. Science 293 (5533): 1304–1308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Horn III, Sherman W. 2015. The web of complexity: Socioeconomic networks in the middle preclassic Belize valley. Ph.D dissertation, Tulane University.Google Scholar
  21. Iannone, G., ed. 2014. The great Maya droughts in cultural context: Case studies in resilience and vulnerability. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.Google Scholar
  22. Jones, Grant D. 1998. The conquest of the last Maya kingdom. Stanford: University of Stanford Press.Google Scholar
  23. Lentz, David L., Nicholas P. Dunning, and Vernon L. Scarborough, eds. 2015. Tikal: Paleoecology of an ancient Maya city. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Leyden, Barbara W. 2002. Pollen evidence for climatic variability and cultural disturbance in the Maya Lowlands. Ancient Mesoamerica 13 (1): 85–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lohse, Jon C. 2010. Archaic origins of the lowland Maya. Latin American Antiquity 21 (3): 312–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lucero, Lisa J., et al. 2014. Water and landscape: Ancient Maya settlement decisions. In The resilience and vulnerability of ancient landscapes: Transforming Maya archaeology through IHOPE, ed. A.F. Chase and V.L. Scarbororugh, 30–42. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.Google Scholar
  27. McAnany, Patricia Ann. 1995. Living with the ancestors: Kinship and kingship in ancient Maya society. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  28. Mueller, Andreas D., et al. 2010. Late quaternary palaeoenvironment of northern Guatemala: Evidence from deep drill cores and seismic stratigraphy of Lake Pete´n Itza. Sedimentology 57: 1220–1245.Google Scholar
  29. Nations, James D., and Ronald Nigh. 1980. The evolutionary potential of Lacandon Maya sustained-yield tropical forest agriculture. Journal of Anthropological Research 36 (1): 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Pendergast, David M. 1981 Lamanai, Belize: Summary of excavation results, 1974–1980. Journal of Field Archaeology 8 (1): 29–53.Google Scholar
  31. Puleston, Dennis Edward, and Olga Stavrakis Puleston. 1971. An ecological approach to the origins of Maya civilization. Archaeology 24 (4): 330–337.Google Scholar
  32. Robin, Cynthia, ed. 2012. Chan: An ancient Maya farming community. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.Google Scholar
  33. Rosenswig, Robert M. 2004. The Late Archaic occupation of northern Belize: New archaeological. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 1: 267–277.Google Scholar
  34. Ross, Nanci J., and Thiago F. Rangel. 2011. Ancient Maya agroforestry echoing through spatial relationships in the extant forest of NW Belize. Biotropica 43 (2): 141–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Schulze, Mark D., and David F. Whitacre. 1999. A classification and ordination of the tree community of Tikal National Park, Petén, Guatemala. Vol. 41. Gainsville: University of Florida.Google Scholar
  36. Schwartz, Norman B. 1990. Forest Society: A Social History of Petén, Guatemala. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Terán, Silvia, and Christian H. Rasmussen. 2008. Jinetes del Cielo Maya: Dioses y Diosas de la Lluvia en Xocen. Merida: Ediciones de la Universidad Autonoma de Yucatán.Google Scholar
  38. Turner, I.I., Billie Lee, and Jeremy A. Sabloff. 2012. Classic period collapse of the central Maya Lowlands: Insights about human–environment relationships for sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 109 (35): 13908–13914.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Voorhies, Barbara. 1982. An ecological model of the early Maya of the central Lowlands. In Maya subsistence: Studies in memory of Dennis Edward Puleston, Studies in archaeology, ed. K.V. Flannery, 65–95. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  40. Webster, David L. 2002. The fall of the ancient Maya: Solving the mystery of the Maya collapse. London: Thames & Hudson.Google Scholar
  41. Wilken, Gene C. 1987. Good farmers: Traditional agricultural resource management in México and central America. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Further Readings

  1. Aimers, James, and David Hodell. 2011. Societal collapse: Drought and the Maya. Nature 479: 44–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Balée, William. 2006. The research program of historical ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 75–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Binford, Michael W., Mark Brenner, Thomas J. Whitmore, Antonia Higuera-Gundy, E.S. Deevey, and Barbara Leyden. 1987. Ecosystems, paleoecology and human disturbance in subtropical and tropical America. Quaternary Science Reviews 6 (2): 115–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bray, Francesca. 1994. Agriculture for developing nations. Scientific American 271 (1): 30–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brumfiel, Elizabeth M., and Timothy K. Earle. 1987. Specialization, exchange, and complex societies: An introduction. In Specialization, exchange, and complex societies, ed. E. Brumfiel and T.K. Earle, 1–9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Campbell, David G., Anabel Ford, Karen Lowell, Jay Walker, Jeffrey K. Lake, Constanza Ocampo-Raeder, Andrew Townesmith, and Michael Balick. 2006. The feral forests of the eastern Petén. In Time and complexity in the neotropical lowlands: Studies in historical ecology, ed. W. Balée and C. Erickson, 21–55. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Chase, Arlen F., and Vernon L. Scarborough. 2014. Resiliency, and IHOPE-Maya: Using the past to inform the present. In The resilience and vulnerability of ancient landscapes: Transforming maya archaeology through IHOPE, ed. A.F. Chase and V.L. Scarborough, 1–10. Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
  8. Clark, John E., and David Cheetham. 2002. Mesoamerica’s tribal foundations. In The archaeology of tribal societies, ed. W.A. Parkinson, 278–339. Ann Arbor: Archaeological Series International Monographs in Prehistory.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Conklin, Harold. 1957. Hanunóo agriculture: A report on an integral system of shifting cultivation in the Philippines. Rome: FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.Google Scholar
  10. Diaz, Bernal. 1963. The conquest of New Spain. Trans J. M. Cohen. Penguin classics. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  11. Dunning, Nicholas, Timothy Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, and John G. Jones. 2009. Creating stable landscape: Soil conservation and adaptation among the Maya. In The archaeology of environmental change, ed. C.T. Fisher, J.B. Hill, and G.M. Feinman, 85–105. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  12. Fletcher, Roland. 2009. Low-density, agrarian-based uranism: A comparative view. Insight 2: 2–19.Google Scholar
  13. Ford, Anabel. 1986. Population Growth and Social Complexity: An Examination of Settlement and Environment in the Central Maya Lowlands. Anthropological Research Papers No. 35 35. Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.Google Scholar
  14. Ford, Anabel. 1991. Problems with the evaluation of population from settlement data: Examination of ancient Maya residential patterns in the Tikal-Yaxhá intersite area. Estudios de Cultura Maya 18: 157–186.Google Scholar
  15. Freidel, David A., and Linda Schele. 1988. Kingship in the late preclassic Maya Lowlands: The instruments and places of ritual power. American Anthropologist 90 (3): 547–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gardens, Kew 2017 The International Plant Name Index, Genus = Theobroma., pp. The International Plant Names Index (IPNI) is a database of the names and associated basic bibliographical details of seed plants, ferns and lycophytes, vol. 2017. Kew Gardens, IPNI.
  17. González González, Arturo H., Carmen Rojas Sandova, Alejandro Terrazas Mata, Martha Benavente Sanvicente, Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, O. Jeronimo Aviles, Magdalena de los Ríos, and Eugenio Acevez. 2008. The arrival of humans on the Yucatan Peninsula: Evidence from submerged caves in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Current Research in the Pleistocene 25: 1–24.Google Scholar
  18. Heckenberger, Michael J., J. Christian Russell, Carlos Fausto, Joshua R. Toney, Morgan J. Schmidt, Edithe Pereira, Bruna Franchetto, and Afukaka Kuikuro. 2008. Pre-Columbian urbanism, anthropogenic landscapes, and the future of the Amazon. Science 321 (5893): 1214–1217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Iceland, Harry B. 1997. The preceramic origins of the Maya: The results of the Colha preceramic. Project in Northern Belize. Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.Google Scholar
  20. Iceland, Harry B. 2005. The preceramic to early middle formative transition in Northern Belize: Evidence for the ethnic identity of the preceramic inhabitants. In New perspectives on formative mesoamerican cultures, ed. T. G. Powis. BAR International Series, 1377 vols. Oxford, UK: Archaeopress.Google Scholar
  21. IFord, Anabel, and Keith C. Clarke. 2015. Linking the past and present of the ancient Maya: Lowland land use, population distribution, and density in the late classic period. In The Oxford handbook of historical ecology and applied archaeology, ed. C. Isendahl and D. Stump, 28. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Inomata, Takeshi, Daniela Triadan, Erick Ponciano, Estela Pinto, Richard E. Terry, and Markus Eberl. 2002. Domestic and political lives of classic Maya elites: The excavation of rapidly abandoned structures at Aguateca, Guatemala. Latin American Antiquity 13 (3): 305–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Jones, John G. 1994. Pollen evidence for early settlement and agriculture in Northern Belize. Palynology 18: 205–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kellman, Martin, and Rosanne Tackaberry. 1997. Tropical environments: The functioning and management of tropical ecosystems. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kennett, Douglas J., Sebastian F.M. Breitenbach, Valorie V. Aquino, Yemane Asmerom, Jaime Awe, James U.L. Baldini, Patrick Bartlein, Brendan J. Culleton, Claire Ebert, Christopher Jazwa, Martha J. Macri, Norbert Marwan, Victor Polyak, Keith M. Prufer, Harriet E. Ridley, Harald Sodemann, Bruce Winterhalder, and Gerald H. Haug. 2012. Development and disintegration of Maya political systems in response to Climate Change. Science 85.
  26. Lambert, J.D.H., and J.T. Arnarson. 1982. Ramon and Maya ruins: An ecological not an economic relation. Science 216 (4543): 298–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lohse, Jon C., Jaime Awe, Cameron Griffith, Robert M. Rosenswig, and Fred Valdez. 2006. Preceramic occupations in Belize: Updating the Paleoindian and archaic record. Latin American Antiquity 17 (2): 209–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Pendergast, David M. 1981. Stability through change: Lamanai, Belize, from the ninth to the seventeenth century. In Late Lowland Maya civilization: Classic to postclassic, ed. Jeremy A. Sabloff, E. Wyllys, and V. Andrews. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.Google Scholar
  29. Pohl, Mary D., Kevin O. Pope, John G. Jones, John S. Jacob, Dolores R. Piperno, Susan D. de France, David L. Lentz, John A. Gifford, Marie E. Danforth, and J. Kathryn Josserand. 1996. Early agriculture in the Maya Lowlands. Latin American Antiquity 7 (4): 355–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Puleston, Dennis Edward.1973. Ancient Maya settlement patterns and environment at Tikal, Guatemala: Implications for subsistence models. Ph.D. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  31. Rice, Don S. 1976. The historical ecology of lakes Yaxhá and Sacnab, El Petén, Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, State College.Google Scholar
  32. Stinnesbeck, W., Julia Becker, Fabio Hering, Eberhard Frey, Arturo González González, Jens Fohlmeister, Sarah Stinnesbeck, Norbert Frank, Alejandro Terrazas Mata, Martha Elena Benavente, Jerónimo Avilés Olguín, Eugenio Aceves Núñez, Patrick Zell, and Michael Deininger. 2017. The earliest settlers of Mesoamerica date back to the late Pleistocene. PLoS One 12 (8): e0183345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Tambiah, Stanley J. 1976. The galactic polity: The structure of traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Annals New York Academy of Sciences 293: 69–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. West, Robert C. 1964. Surface configuration and associated geology of Middle America. Handbook of Middle American Indians 1: 33–83.Google Scholar
  35. White, D.A., and C.S. Hood. 2004. Vegetation patterns and environmental gradients in tropical dry forests of the Northern Yucatán Peninsula. Journal of Vegetation Science 15 (2): 151–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Exploring Solutions Past – The Maya Forest Alliance; ISBER/MesoAmerican Research CenterUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marcel Otte
    • 1
  1. 1.Service of PrehistoryUniversity of LiègeLiègeBelgium