(CN) – According to new geographical findings announced Monday, the ancient Maya had a much larger environmental impact on the tropical ecosystem they inhabited than previously understood, countering environmental pressures by creating large agricultural fields in the surrounding wetlands.
In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at The University of Texas in Austin used light detection and ranging techniques along with evidence from these wetlands to measure the Maya’s impact. They discovered the well-known Birds of Paradise wetland field complex to be five times larger than previously known and found another much larger field in Belize.
The Maya experienced severe environmental pressures, including rising sea levels and intense droughts. They responded to these by turning forests into wetland field complexes to grow ancient food species, including maize.
The wetlands were favorable crop locations during the long droughts, and the Maya traveled by canoe to nearby wetlands to extend their reach and be able to feed their growing population. Additionally, they dug canals to carefully manage and utilize their water supply.
These extensive alterations of the ecosystem caused a great deal of emissions to enter the atmosphere. Every time the Mayas burned their crops, they would emit an abundance of CO2, and the highest production of methane in the premodern world comes from their massive expanse of wetland field complexes.
This new information puts the Anthropocene, the period when humans began greatly affecting Earth, much farther back than previously thought, shedding light on early human impacts on tropical ecosystems.
The Maya were commonly believed to show developments in agriculture and the building of villages prior to 2000 B.C. The last Mayan city fell in 1697 following the colonization of the Mesoamerican region by the Spanish Empire.
The researchers commented that these findings may not encompass the whole of the Maya’s ecological footprint due to soil aggradation, and could be much larger than currently discernable. Co-author Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach said this study provides a very sobering perspective when we look at how these minor changes may have warmed our planet in comparison with modern human activity.