Posted by: Johan Normark | September 4, 2012

Agroforestry and caves

Readers may wonder what is happening to my articles and book on caves, settlement change and climate change in the Cochuah region. The thing is that I constantly find new and old articles that I need to integrate in my own texts. I never get to send them away. In the past week or so I have found a couple of articles that is interesting for my claim that the Cochuah cave sites were largely uninhabited and perhaps even were “sacred grooves” during the periods with few known droughts (Early and Late Classic). One such study of interest deals with agroforestry practices at Tikal.

The study by Lentz and Hockaday (2009) focuses on beams and lintels from two palaces and six temples at Late Classic Tikal. Agroforestry practices would have changed as wood resources became scarce and a decline in wood supply would also be reflected in the selection and quality of timbers used in these major buildings.

Only two tree species were used in these buldings. The favored tree for construction was the zapote tree (sapodilla) (Malinkara zapota). It grows in moist mixed upland forest and it grows slow to moderate. An old tree can reach a height of 30-40 m and has a trunk diameter of 1.5 m. The wood is hard, durable and weather resistant. It is carved while still green and then allowed to dry to iron-like hardness. The other tree species used at Tikal was the wetland logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum). It is shorter and is slow-growing. Today it is used as a source of dye. It can become 8 m high and it often has a crooked trunk. The tree needs clayey soil and is tolerant of standing water. Such trees were likely grown in seasonal wetlands. The heartwood is dense and highly durable.

Only sapodilla was used in the first three major temples (II, I and IV). Lintel beam diameters reached their greatest dimension around AD 741 (Temple IV). In the following four decades logwood became important for Temple V and VI. The palaces have a mixture of woods. In the final temple, Temple III, sapodilla wood was once again used but the lintel diameters were much smaller than in the earlier temples.

A lintel from Temple IV, with a radius of 27 cm, indicates that it was 280 years old when it was cut down. This means that the tree came from old growth forest. This indicates that the Maya practiced some kind of forest management since high forest pollen signature remains in pollen records. The trees may have come from ancestor estates/”sacred” grows where the sapodilla was protected and planted.

The switch from sapodilla to logwood indicates that the uplands finally had been depleted of high trees around AD 750. The return to sapodilla in Temple III indicates that a second grown forest had been used.

In my study I argue that since the Cochuah cave sites show two major phases of settlement that coincide with drier conditions, the Late Formative and the Terminal Classic, the areas surrounding the caves during the wetter periods in-between (Early and Late Classic) may have sustained old-growth forest/”sacred” grows. Deforestation and drier conditions may have forced people to settle around these sites during the Terminal Classic to perhaps utilize/burn down the last remaining high forest.

Lentz, David L and Brian Hockaday (2009). Tikal timbers and temples: Ancient Maya agroforestry and the end of time. Journal of Archaeological Science 36:1342-1353.


  1. My own background is in the “hard” sciences, but I’ve always been in awe of how much you archaeologists have to know, and know well, about so many things. For example, a few years ago I did a little work on the side to help a friend with some math related to fossil pollen studies. I was humbled to see how much hard work had been necessary to get a handle on what was growing where, and when, in Maya regions.

  2. Yes, archaeology needs to integrate several disciplines. In my cave project I include archaeological field work, GIS, palaeoclimate, philosophy, colonial history, geology, etc. Other studies I have done have focused on gender, ethnicity, communication routes, trade, etc. It is therefore so funny when an armchair 2012er yells that I am a narrow minded academic who simply do not get the big picture. Only when you know several disciplines well do you understand that there is no big picture. Reality is filled with voids.


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