Lessons from Mayans

Ancient Mayans can teach us a thing or two about nature conservation.

Last Updated: Jul 24, 2009, 09:12 AM IST

Washington: Ancient Mayans can teach us a thing or two about nature conservation, says a recent study.

"From our research we have learned that the Mayans were deliberately conserving forest resources," said David Lentz, professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati (U-C).

"Forty years ago the emphasis was on what king built what palace, who slew whom and who is portrayed on what stele. It`s all about the rulers and their exploits," said Lentz.

"They didn`t look at the economy, agricultural practices, forest management or how the people and the culture functioned," he added.

And what the U-C team has learned by studying these processes is that the Maya, at least initially, were practising good forestry management.

The U-C team is the first to be permitted to work at the Tikal site core in northern Guatemala in more than 40 years. Previous excavations reflected an interest in culture and history, but interests are different in the 21st century.

"They (Mayans) were not allowed to cut down what we`re calling the sacred groves," said Lentz. "Then that changed during the Late Classic period with Jasaw Chan K`awiil -- one of the greatest figures of pre-history."

After that, the Maya rebuilt the city of Tikal in a way never seen before. They began building huge temples that required considerable resources, especially large, straight trees whose wood could withstand the weight of tonnes of stone. Their choices were limited to two types of trees only.

"So, unfortunately, Jasaw Chan K`awiil tapped into their sacred groves to do this," said Lentz.

So what led to the downfall of the Mayans?

"When you clear all the forests, it changes the hydrologic cycle," said Lentz. "That causes soil erosion, which then chokes the rivers and streams. With no trees, you lose water retention in the soil or aquifers so the ground dries up."

Besides using the trees as timber, the Mayas also burned the trees, adding carbon to the air in the form of carbon dioxide. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and return oxygen in its place, thus cleaning and purifying the air.

"We`re saying in the end they were unsuccessful," said Lentz. "But they kept it going for several hundreds of years -- so they must have done some things right."

These findings were published in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.