A review of human and natural changes in Maya Lowland wetlands over the Holocene

Tim Beach, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Nicholas Dunning, John Jones, Jon Lohse, Tom Guderjan, Steve Bozarth, Sarah Millspaugh, Tripti Bhattacharya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Scopus citations


In the Maya Lowlands of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala two main types of wetlands have played important roles in human history: bajos or intermittently wet environments of the upland, interior Yucatán and perennial wetlands of the coastal plains. Many of the most important Maya sites encircle the bajos, though our growing evidence for human-wetland interactions is still sparse. The deposits of these wetlands record two main eras of slope instability and wetland aggradation: the Pleistocene-Holocene transition as rainfall increased and forests eclipsed savannas and the Maya Preclassic to Classic as deforestation, land-use intensity, and drying increased. The ancient Maya adapted with terraces around these bajo margins but retracted in the Late Preclassic in some areas. The perennial wetlands of the coastal plains have different histories, and the first conceptual model of human-wetland interaction described intensive wetland agriculture in the Preclassic through Classic based on raised fields and canals. But a second model arose that interpreted the wetland stratigraphy and canals as more indicative of natural aggradation by accelerated erosion and gypsum precipitation that buried Archaic and Preclassic fields and there was little Classic era use. We present new data on a third and fourth model in this study. The third is a hybrid of the models one and two, including the Archaic to Preclassic aggradation of the second model, and the first model's Classic period fields and canals as piecemeal attempts by the Maya to adapt to these and other environmental changes. The fourth conceptual model describes a very Late/Terminal Classic, preplanned project on a floodplain. These wetland fields were short-lived, aggraded rapidly but with some reoccupation in the Postclassic. All of these new models display the burgeoning evidence for intricate Maya interactions with wetlands, and the diversity of evidence from the relatively few studies underscores the infancy of our understanding of Maya interaction with tropical wetlands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1710-1724
Number of pages15
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number17-18
StatePublished - Aug 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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