UT professor lectures on Mayan agriculture

Nidia Cavazos

Based on his years of field study in Belize, geography professor Timothy Beach discussed the chronology and formation of ancient Maya and wetland agriculture on Thursday.

Beach, along with his team of graduate students, has conducted studies on wetlands to better understand their significance to the Mayan civilization. Through his research, Beach and his team also work to raise awareness of the impact human activity has on the natural sites.

At the event, which was part of the Mesoamerica Colloquium Series and hosted by the Department of Art and Art History’s Mesoamerica Center, Beach said that human activity greatly affects the wetland ecosystem. Because of this, he said it is important to preserve the Central American wetlands and to add them to the UNESCO World Heritage list, which would designate them as culturally or physically significant.

“Humans are now the largest geomorphic agent on earth,” Beach said. “One of my hopes is to get some of these Mayan wetlands on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”

Beach’s field research analyzed the geomorphological data in the soil of both Central American wetlands and tropical forests. The soil layers he analyzed showed evidence of past human activities, such as digging irrigation canals, farming and raising water tables.

Beach said he hopes this data will better answer the fundamental question of how important subsistence agriculture was to the Mayan civilization.

During his lecture, Beach said that understanding the roles and methods of Mayan farming will allow society to better understand and learn from Mayan civilization and the value it placed on wetlands and forests.

“Are [species in tropical forests] the economic species that the Mayans looked for and intended to keep?” Beach said. “If they were a really productive society, then why don’t we recreate them?” 

Geology graduate student Natasha Sekhon attended the lecture.

“It is interesting how geosciences and geography are interrelated, and you have a lot of relations you can make to [the findings],” Sekhon said. “It is very fascinating.”

Beach’s lecture also touched on other parts of his research, like soil layering and erosion in the former Mayan lowlands and perennial wetlands of Central America.

Tianyi Sun, a geology graduate student, said she attended this lecture because parts of the lecture covered information pertinent to her classes. 

“We were talking of C3 and C4 plants in class, and I was told that I could gain other ideas or concepts that are relevant in my own studies and interests, and I did,” Sun said.