Researchers find clues to early human-inflicted environmental changes

Elizabeth Hlavinka

UT researchers discovered new data indicating ancient Mayan infrastructure initiated human-inflicted change on the environment, according to a UT study.

Tim Beach, geology professor and co-author of the study, said researchers in multiple disciplines are always studying Anthropocene, the time period during which human beings began to impact the environment. The study marked the period of maximum human impact during the Mayan world using evidence of changes in sediment, natural lakes and with the development of cities, Beach said.

“In a sedimentary sequence, you’ll have soil that formed for thousands of years, and then all of a sudden, you get layer after layer of deposit on top of it, showing that the whole environment was altered,” Beach said. “This change dates to the Mayan period.”

Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, co-author and geology profesor,  said the researchers also analyzed alternative forms of evidence such as different pollens, which suggest the type of vegetation that existed at the time. The destruction of much of this vegetation created an “urban heat island effect,” where landscapes hit directly by the sun reach much higher temperatures.

“This is an analog for modern conditions,” Luzzadder-Beach said. “You can experience this walking out across the plaza of Gregory Gym down to Waller Creek, where it’s much cooler under the canopy. Urbanization, not just particular to the Maya, is an interesting global impact pattern to look at.”

Julie Gonzalez, environmental science senior and president of the Undergraduate Geological Society, said this study can help society understand its impact on Earth.

“People have a hard time conceptualizing what climate change looks like and how they are a part of this change,” Gonzalez said. “By depicting what an area looked like before human presence and then introducing the aftermath of this presence, it can make them look at the big picture.”

Beach said while he thinks this study is important, its discoveries pale in comparison to recent human impacts on the environment. Today, humans’ impact on their environment is on a much larger scale than anything induced by ancient civilizations, according to Beach.

“As we go forward in the modern world of global warming, there are a number of options: to change, to adapt or to suffer,” Beach said. “While it’s hard to get an international agreement to allow us to mitigate the problem, we know there are adaptation potentials. This gives us one line of evidence in that process.”