Muddy Mayan mystery made clearer by researchers working in the bajos

A team of scholars led by University of Cincinnati professors Nicholas and Vernon Scarborough found evidence of a major environmental transformation that helps to explain a puzzle that has stumped Maya scholars for decades. Why would the Maya live in an area where the primary water source is little more than mud half of the year?

The discoveries reveal why many early Maya centers were abandoned about 1,600 years after the civilization first appeared in the lowlands of Latin America. They also document why the Maya moved to new areas where they created elaborate water storage systems that allowed their civilization to thrive for several more centuries.

Dunning, a geographer, and Scarborough, an anthropologist, both in the UC McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, are joined by four co-authors in the report of their research in the latest issue of Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Volume 92, No. 2, 2002) .

The plight of the Maya, a Native American society that built densely populated cities of towering pyramids and then abandoned them, has been an unresolved mystery for scholars around the world. The first Maya settlements appeared about 2000 B.C., but by 950 A.D. most of the lowland cities were unpopulated. The once-thriving Maya cities were overgrown by tropical forests until archaeologists began to rediscover them in the mid-19th century.

Many of the early centers were located near "bajos" - large depressions in the limestone bedrock. This presents another riddle that has "bugged scholars in the Maya area for years," Dunning says. Why? Because today these swamp-like depressions, or bajos, are wet only from about July to November. That makes them unsuitable to support a large populace.

The two UC scholars and their co-researchers have discovered that these bajos were once perennial wetlands or shallow lakes. About 400 B.C. to 250 A.D., human interference, climate and environment combined to transform them

Contact: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
University of Cincinnati

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