Mayan fields under wetlands in southern Mexico discovered
Archaeologists found under the wetlands of southern Mexico evidence of Mayan fields, which suggest that they grew surplus and practiced a sophisticated market economy.
The Mayan civilization extended through parts of Mesoamerica, a region that encompasses Mexico and Central America. The oldest evidence of Mayan civilization dates back to 1800 BC, but most cities flourished between 250 and 900 AD. When Spanish ships arrived in the 1500s, some of the larger cities were deserted.
Nicholas Dunning, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, was part of a research team that found evidence of cultivation in irregularly shaped fields in Mexico that followed the paths of canals and natural water channels in a place called Laguna de Terminos in the Gulf from Mexico. Archaeologists hope to find evidence that there was human population when the excavations begin.
They present their findings at the annual conference of the American Association of Geographers in Washington, D.C. Extensive farmland suggests that the ancient Maya could grow surplus crops, especially the cotton responsible for the renowned textiles that were marketed throughout Mesoamerica.
"It was a much more complex market economy that is usually thought about the Maya," Dunning said.
The satellite images revealed a block quilt along the drainage ditches that suggested they had been constructed. The archaeologist also studied the images NASA created of the region using LIDAR technology, which can represent the contours of the soil beneath the canopy of trees and vegetation.
His review confirmed Dunning's suspicions: the area was covered by old fields.
"It seems that they developed quite simply from the modifications of the existing drainage along the eastern edge of the wetlands," Dunning said. "They probably deepened and straightened some channels or connected them in places, but then expanded the fields with more sophisticated hydro-engineering."
The team also used the LIDAR images in the project to follow an ancient Mayan road that may not have covered more than 1,000 years. The road is perfectly visible on the LIDAR map, but it is practically impossible to discern on the surface. The identification of possible paths is important for another interest of researchers: the ancient Mayan markets.
According to the researchers, unlike the pyramids or even many houses, the markets had no foundations or permanent structures. They were built on low platforms or clear areas, maybe as a seasonal fair or a flea market. But they were an important part of life in the Mayan culture.
Dunning said the ancient Mayans probably sold perishable goods such as corn and a starchy tuber called cassava. And they exchanged "blankets" or rolls of ornate and richly patterned textiles made from the cotton they cultivated. These were appreciated by the Spaniards who arrived in the sixteenth century. "We do not have direct evidence of what textiles were like in this area, but if you look at ancient paintings and sculptures, people were wearing very elaborate clothes," Dunning said.