Mayan stone ruins in a field of foliage

Environment

Scientists turn to the ancient Mayans for lessons on sustainability

Lisa Lucero, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and an expert on Mayan civilization, discussed her findings with The World's host Marco Werman.

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Tourists take pictures inside the archaeological site of Copan, in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, July 3, 2021.

Credit:

Rodrigo Abd/AP

When it comes to sustainability, cutting-edge building materials or new ways of harnessing renewable energy often come to mind. But there are also lessons to be learned from the past. 

Related: Mayan beekeepers launch legal battle to protect the environment

The ancient Maya civilization that was centered in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize had a system in place that worked in harmony with the environment. Now, researchers are studying historic cities to learn how to live sustainably today.

Related: Florida teen girls step up to translate Indigenous Mayan languages

Scientists have found vast landscapes of small and large centers connected by dispersed landscapes, residential areas, causeways, dams and reservoirs that supported growing populations even through dry seasons.

Related: Mexico wants to run a tourist train through its Mayan heartland — should it?

Lisa Lucero, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and an expert on Mayan civilization, discussed her findings with The World's host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: You talk about the sustainability established by the Maya as a "cosmology of conservation." First of all, what do you mean by that phrase?

Lisa Lucero: What I mean by the "cosmology of conservation" is how the Maya interacted or engaged with the rainforest, the tropical rainforests, the area in which they lived. Their worldview put them on an equal plane with other entities of the world like plants and animals. So, the Maya acknowledged the need to eat and hunt and all of this, but they did it with a different type of respect. So, they didn't overuse. As far as I know, the Maya never caused the extinction of any flora or fauna. So, the Maya work with the rainforest.

They work with the resources, they work with other entities, the other entities who also have a role in maintaining the world. And one point I want to make is the fact that the Maya have been farming in this area for over 4,000 years without denuding the landscape. Because of this diverse nature, this diverse interaction, they didn't have monocropping. They didn't rely on just one of anything. So, this diversity is key to their sustainable way of life.

So, how large were Mayan cities at their peak and what years are we talking about exactly?

The peak of Mayan civilization in the cities and population is in the late Classic period from about the years 600 to 850, 900. The largest cities are Caracol, Calakmul, the same cities, maybe from 80,000 to 120,000 people were supported. And the cities aren't your typical defined cities. So, they had plazas and ball courts and temples and palaces and causeways and reservoirs. They were surrounded by dense farmsteads, dispersed all over. But the key thing is in the seasonal tropic, you have the rainy season, which is the agricultural intensive period and the dry season, which is the agricultural downtime. And this is when these areas with lots of soils often don't have a lot of surface water. So, the Maya built these massive reservoirs. So, during the dry season, this is when you had the highest population densities within the cities.

 

So, practically, let's just look at how that cosmology of conservation works that you were talking about. You were just on water resources. How did the Maya approach water resources?

In diverse ways, for example, some colleagues in Belize have excavated households that have water-capturing systems. You know, they actually carve little rivulets so they can actually contain water. Everyone basically had the water barrel, the rain barrels, if you will. So, the ancient Maya reservoirs are the largest scale water system. And the coolest thing to me, which is just absolutely fascinating, is that the reservoirs, I mean, they're standing water for five months of the dry season, yet they kept water clean.

And because of their traditional ecological knowledge, they understood how plants work, the different kinds of animal breeds and all these kinds of things. There's a lot of knowledge there. So, they applied their knowledge to create wetland biospheres. So, there's a mix of surface and subsurface plants and fish, and the algae and bacteria work together, all to produce clean water that's drinkable. So, this is what the reservoir is, not only supplied drinking water during the long, dry season, but clean water.

Are any of these practices you've described still being used today?

Yes, I've been working in central Belize and my current project since 1997, and so I've worked with many field assistants and foremen. So, these foremen and field assistants are Maya, and the knowledge I learn from them is amazing because we're doing a  survey, which just means we're walking through the forest, we're walking through the jungle looking for sites, and they're pointing out, why are we surveying this area? We're not going to find anything in these types of clay soils because they become too saturated when it rains.

And they point out all of this flora and fauna that they use for construction materials, for medicinal purposes, for poison, to kill fish, for example, for fruit and all kinds of things. So, there's a mix of traditional practices and non-Maya practices. So, you don't get as much monocropping, you still get mixed fields, but not as diverse as it used to be. But the knowledge of weather and the soils. So, they understand how the plants interact with each other and the different requirements. And that's based on thousands of years of this knowledge that's passed from one generation to the next. So, when we're excavating and they help me train students and grad students, I learn so much from them about agriculture and weather and just everything, basically. And I've been able to try out lots of interesting foods.

So, as you said, Mayan cities were large, but not megalopolis large like cities today. What can modern, huge cities learn from the Maya about sustainability?

Urban planners can learn a lot from the Maya in terms of having this mosaic within the cities of a mix of house gardens and forests and greenery, because, as you know, trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen and provide shade, and all of these kinds of things, and also help with water filtration. I mean, it's all connected. We're all connected. And that's something that the Maya appreciated, which was enfolded into their cosmology, and that's something we can learn to just appreciate more about. It. And also reuseable, not only recycle, but multiple-use kinds of things.

For example, having more walkways, raised walkways, and underneath have shaded areas for trees and other kinds of bicycle paths in this kind of thing. And using bamboo, which grows very fast and is very strong, for example. The Maya use all kinds of bamboo for construction. As a matter of fact, I don't use metal tools to excavate very delicate operations, such as human remains. We use bamboo sticks because unlike metal, they don't scratch, and also not just in terms of construction materials, but cleaning water with nonchemical means.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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