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      Forests, fields, and the edge of sustainability at the ancient Maya city of Tikal

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          Abstract

          Tikal has long been viewed as one of the leading polities of the ancient Maya realm, yet how the city was able to maintain its substantial population in the midst of a tropical forest environment has been a topic of unresolved debate among researchers for decades. We present ecological, paleoethnobotanical, hydraulic, remote sensing, edaphic, and isotopic evidence that reveals how the Late Classic Maya at Tikal practiced intensive forms of agriculture (including irrigation, terrace construction, arboriculture, household gardens, and short fallow swidden) coupled with carefully controlled agroforestry and a complex system of water retention and redistribution. Empirical evidence is presented to demonstrate that this assiduously managed anthropogenic ecosystem of the Classic period Maya was a landscape optimized in a way that provided sustenance to a relatively large population in a preindustrial, low-density urban community. This landscape productivity optimization, however, came with a heavy cost of reduced environmental resiliency and a complete reliance on consistent annual rainfall. Recent speleothem data collected from regional caves showed that persistent episodes of unusually low rainfall were prevalent in the mid-9th century A.D., a time period that coincides strikingly with the abandonment of Tikal and the erection of its last dated monument in A.D. 869. The intensified resource management strategy used at Tikal-already operating at the landscape's carrying capacity-ceased to provide adequate food, fuel, and drinking water for the Late Classic populace in the face of extended periods of drought. As a result, social disorder and abandonment ensued.

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          Most cited references 30

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          Changes in the carbon balance of tropical forests: evidence from long-term plots

          The role of the world's forests as a "sink" for atmospheric carbon dioxide is the subject of active debate. Long-term monitoring of plots in mature humid tropical forests concentrated in South America revealed that biomass gain by tree growth exceeded losses from tree death in 38 of 50 Neotropical sites. These forest plots have accumulated 0.71 ton, plus or minus 0.34 ton, of carbon per hectare per year in recent decades. The data suggest that Neotropical forests may be a significant carbon sink, reducing the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
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            Development and disintegration of Maya political systems in response to climate change.

            The role of climate change in the development and demise of Classic Maya civilization (300 to 1000 C.E.) remains controversial because of the absence of well-dated climate and archaeological sequences. We present a precisely dated subannual climate record for the past 2000 years from Yok Balum Cave, Belize. From comparison of this record with historical events compiled from well-dated stone monuments, we propose that anomalously high rainfall favored unprecedented population expansion and the proliferation of political centers between 440 and 660 C.E. This was followed by a drying trend between 660 and 1000 C.E. that triggered the balkanization of polities, increased warfare, and the asynchronous disintegration of polities, followed by population collapse in the context of an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 C.E.
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              Classic Period collapse of the Central Maya Lowlands: insights about human-environment relationships for sustainability.

               B Turner,  J. Sabloff (2012)
              The ninth century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatán peninsular region were the result of complex human-environment interactions. Large-scale Maya landscape alterations and demands placed on resources and ecosystem services generated high-stress environmental conditions that were amplified by increasing climatic aridity. Coincident with this stress, the flow of commerce shifted from land transit across the peninsula to sea-borne transit around it. These changing socioeconomic and environmental conditions generated increasing societal conflicts, diminished control by the Maya elite, and led to decisions to move elsewhere in the peninsular region rather than incur the high costs of maintaining the human-environment systems in place. After abandonment, the environment of the Central Maya Lowlands largely recovered, although altered from its state before Maya occupation; the population never recovered. This history and the spatial and temporal variability in the pattern of collapse and abandonment throughout the Maya lowlands support the case for different conditions, opportunities, and constraints in the prevailing human-environment systems and the decisions to confront them. The Maya case lends insights for the use of paleo- and historical analogs to inform contemporary global environmental change and sustainability.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
                Proc Natl Acad Sci USA
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
                0027-8424
                1091-6490
                December 30 2014
                December 30 2014
                : 111
                : 52
                : 18513-18518
                Article
                10.1073/pnas.1408631111
                4284545
                25512500
                © 2014

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