The ancient Maya of Southern Mexico and Central America altered wetlands into farmland, leaving a lasting impact on the land that’s still visible today to scientists using Google Earth. In fact, Dr. Tim Beach of Georgetown University uses Google Earth to identify and study these sites – which constitute a swath of land 100 kilometers across Belize, Guatemala and Yucatan Mexico.
Tim Beach: You find these remarkable groups of rectilinear patterns that in some cases look like spider webs and in other places look like more rectangular kinds of features.
What they are, said Beach, is the product of ancient Mayan canals that date back 1000 to 2000 years ago, some of them even earlier than that.
Tim Beach: And they’ve changed a lot since that time, but you can still see these patterns. You can see them if you’re flying over the region or you can see them from Google Earth. And in fact we’ve found a lot more of them from Google Earth in just the last few years.
Along with 21st century technology, Beach also uses a more down-to-earth method of study. To identify what crops were grown, Dr. Beach and his team dig trenches three meters deep and ten to twenty meters long to study the content of soil layers. He said the those soil layers are a time capsule of how land was used in the past.
Tim Beach: We seem to have found lots of evidence for maize over and over again; we don’t usually think of that as a wetland crop. That indicates that you’re building up fairly high mounds between these canals. They’re probably using them for fishing, for mollusks, for turtles as well. So we think these things are kind of like the ultimate mosaic of farming uses.
According to Beach, wetland farming was once practiced from Peru up into the United States but that knowledge of it was lost with the collapse of Mayan civilization in the 9th century and further with European contact.
Dr. Beach said that, in addition to farming wetlands, the ancient Maya practiced terrace agriculture in hilly areas.
Tim Beach: What we’ve found out is that the ancient Maya used a whole lot of things – they didn’t have one answer to feeding populations. They’re using all sorts of different agricultural techniques depending on what the environment is like.
According to Beach, all Mayan farming was local farming because the humid environment made food decompose more quickly, and because of the limitations of transportation.
Tim Beach: There’s no wheel to use, there are no beasts of burden to use along the way as well. So it all had to be done on human backs.
Emily Howard, Producer and On-Air Host, helps create EarthSky audio and video science products in English and Spanish. You might hear her voice on an EarthSky 90-second podcast, or on EarthSky 22, your weekly 22 minutes of science and music from Austin, Texas. Emily oversees the scheduling and production of EarthSky en Español’s audio, video, and online content. She is responsible for setting and enforcing deadlines, and reporting on product development. Emily graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a major in History (focus on Latin American Studies) and a minor in Spanish. She further cultivated her Spanish skills while living abroad in Valparaíso, Chile, and traveling extensively throughout South America, Mexico and Spain.