A High-Resolution Reconstruction of Late Holocene Environmental Change from Laguna Ek’Naab, Northern Holmul Region, Peten, Guatemala
Abstract:Widespread demographic shifts in the southern Maya lowlands at the end of the Classic period have been attributed to environmental change caused by human activity and/or climate variability. Fire was essential to landscape modification and was a primary agent of environmental change associated with prehispanic land use. While several studies have provided insight into the dynamic relationship between natural and anthropogenic drivers of change, defining the specific interplay between natural environmental change, human modification of the environment, and cultural response to changes remains a persistent challenge. Here we present the results of a multi-proxy study that reconstructs fire history, agricultural land use, and environmental change during and after Pre-Columbian Maya settlement. Results are interpreted in the context of settlement history as inferred from archaeological mapping around the study site.
Our findings suggest landscape disturbance, as indicated by erosion, local burning, and nearby maize agriculture, was at its peak during the Early Classic period. This disturbance was likely due to large-scale settlement at the nearby site of Witzna’. All proxies indicate a slow decline in disturbance into the Late Classic period, beginning around 1300 cal yr BP. Cival and Chanchich, two proximal site centers to the south of Laguna Ek’Naab, supported their largest populations during the Late Preclassic and Late Classic, with little or no settlement during the Early Classic. The data from Laguna Ek’Naab suggests that Witzna’ may have been an important center during the Early Classic.
Whether the decreasing environmental degradation after 1240 cal yr BP is do to a decline in local population or changing land use strategies is not discernable based on the data thus far. However, the near complete absence of burning and continued decrease in erosion from 1240-1090 cal yr BP suggests little anthropogenic activity in the area. Burning resumes in the watershed around 1090 cal yr BP and persists until all evidence for agriculture and environmental disturbance disappears at 995 cal yr BP. Permanent abandonment is inferred based on the last appearance of Zea pollen, a lack of burning, and minimal clay input into Laguna Ek’Naab. After this time, the data suggest abandonment through the present.