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Eco-archaeology: forward into the past.

How did the ancient Maya do it? While today a few hundred thousand descendants of the Maya survive with difficulty, the ancient community of two million developed a subsistence economy and a sophisticated political framework without destroying the rainforest for over 13 centuries.

"Old school" scientists still spend most of their time unearthing core sites and deciphering hieroglyphs. The new breed of "evolutionist" archaeologists got their start in the 1960s by investigating large areas around dig sites (their "suburbs," so to speak), studying human interaction at all strata of society and gathering plant and animal evidence. The practice is known as eco-archaeology.

"How a particular society adapts and relates to its environment helps explain why it has a particular size or form," says Dr. Barbara Price, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. She adds that excavating tombs and temples can only go so far to explain the rise and fail of a civilization. Other important factors are "what constituted a household, how did the population make a living, and how was land distributed."

Monumental projects like the Maya temples, the pyramids of Egypt or England's Stonehenge were built by complex societies, eco-archaeologists say, with a practical organization of labor, productive farmlands, and industries that sustainably produced building materials.

The practical application of eco-archaelogy is epitomized at El Pilar, the recently discovered and monumental Maya site straddling Belize and Guatemala. "The ancient Maya were an agricultural society," stresses Dr. Anabel Ford, El Pilar project director and head of the University of California's MesoAmerica Research Center, "and their achievements depended upon the success of their farmers." In excavating ancient houses, garden plots, cooking pots and cutting tools, the El Pilar project emphasizes the way most of the populace lived, not just the tiny elite that ruled them.

The ancient Maya practiced extensive polyculture, yielding long-term results by combining crops of maize, beans, cacao, fruit trees, medicinal plants, palms, cotton and tobacco. By this process, Dr. Ford says, they were mimicking the rejuvenating qualities of the forest in a human environment, without depleting their land, setting fires or polluting rivers. At El Pilar, the humble adobe homes surrounding the main sites will be resurrected to give a more complete picture of daily life. Sustainable resource management programs will focus on the "forest garden," which sustained the Maya for centuries.

John Bennett, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis, says the new field is an opportunity to see beyond scientific myopia, which slots academics into their own narrow disciplines. There's more to archaeology, he says, than unearthing royal tombs and deciphering hieroglyphs. CONTACT: MesoAmerica Research Center, c/o The Institute for Social Behavioral and Economic Research; University of California at Santa Barbara; CA 93106-2150/(805) 893-8191.
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Title Annotation:researchers study how Maya and other ancient peoples related to their environments
Author:Seligman, Brigitte Betrou
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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