The conventional wisdom says that the devolution of Classic Maya civilization occurred because its population grew too large and dense to be supported by primitive neotropical farming methods, resulting in debilitating famines and internecine struggles. Using research on contemporary Maya farming techniques and important new archaeological research, Ford and Nigh refute this Malthusian explanation of events in ancient Central America and posit a radical alternative theory. The authors
- show that ancient Maya farmers developed ingenious, sustainable woodland techniques to cultivate numerous food plants (including the staple maize);
- examine both contemporary tropical farming techniques and the archaeological record (particularly regarding climate) to reach their conclusions;
- make the argument that these ancient techniques, still in use today, can support significant populations over long periods of time.
About the Author
Anabel Ford is director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara and President of the non profit Exploring Solutions Past: The Maya Forest Alliance. She has done extensive research on patterns of Maya settlement and ecology, and is recognized for the discovery of the ancient Maya city center of El Pilar, on the border of Belize and Guatemala.
Ronald Nigh is a professor at Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) in Chiapas, Mexico. He is the author of numerous studies and articles on agricultural, ecological, and environmental issues of concern to indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. He is also director of Dana, A.C. a non-government organization that coordinates an experimental garden in San Cristobal de Las Casas for training and support of young Maya farmers in transition to agroecological technology.
“The Maya and forests are entangled in a tenacious web of interdependent life. There would be no Maya without the forest, and the forest would be different without the Maya. The Maya Forest Garden is rooted in more than 30 years of archaeological, ethnological, and development fieldwork at El Pilar on the Guatemala-Belize border. It demonstrates how the Maya of the past transformed and managed the forest in such a way that it supported large populations, and it outlines how the Maya of today are living in a sustainable manner.”
—William E. Doolittle, University of Texas at Austin
“This engaging book will simultaneously expand scientific respect for indigenous ecological knowledge and become the keystone for advancing ecosystem conservation and sustainable agriculture in the Latin American tropics.”
—James D. Nations, National Parks Conservation Association
"Thousands of years of cultural memory and empirical farming knowledge, as well as modern science and deep agroecology, are reflected in the incredibly diverse Maya milpa fields and forest gardens described in this book. In this epic transdisciplinary account of the intimate relationship between a people and its environment, historical agroecology comes alive, is shown to be living today, and holds the seeds of our future. Heed well the message this book contains!"
“Ford and Nigh move Lowland Maya studies firmly into the light of a number of perspectives: historical ecology, adaptive cycles, ecology of the biota. Their binocular lensing of Maya forest gardens will long reside as a reference for linking not only Maya food producers to the landscapes of the Yucatan Peninsula, but also to the long-term, 8,000-year global cycles of environmental change. Among the benefits of their mix of archaeology, geography, climatology, ethnohistory, ethnography, and plant ecology is a clear linking of ancient and modern Maya populations, and thence onward into suggesting the future through the eyes of the past.”
—Joel Gunn, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
“Ford and Nigh confront the long-held belief that the unproductiveness of the lowland Maya region was the cause of the Maya collapse. They explain in clear language how this region has actually remained productive for the last four thousand years, with Maya farming strategies creating an environment in which 90 percent of the growth is useful for humans and core food crops are rotated across the landscape. Based on this historical ecological perspective, they posit that the Maya collapse was political, not environmental.”
—Christine Hastorf, University of California Berkeley
“Relying on a multifarious array of sources, from pollen fossil analysis, lake core samples and early Spanish chronicles to ethnographic and archaeological research data, Ford and Nigh — a couple of renowned seasoned scholars on the Maya — propose to look at the currently mega diverse tropical forests of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico as a human managed environment via cultural practices around food production, specifically controlled fire and felling of vegetation paired to polycrop agriculture.”
—Alessandro Questa, Anthropology Book Forum