Evidence disputing deforestation as the cause for the collapse of the ancient Maya polity of Copan, Honduras.


Archaeologists have proposed diverse hypotheses to explain the collapse of the southern Maya lowland cities between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D. Although it generally is believed that no single factor was responsible, a commonly accepted cause is environmental degradation as a product of large-scale deforestation. To date, the most compelling scientific evidence used to support this hypothesis comes from the archaeological site of Copan, Honduras, where the analysis of a sediment core suggested a dramatic increase in forest clearance in the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900). By contrast, in the work presented here, the authors' analysis of a longer sediment core demonstrates that forest cover increased from A.D. 400 to A.D. 900, with arboreal pollen accounting for 59.8-71.0% of the pollen assemblage by approximately A.D. 780-980. The highest levels of deforestation are found about 900 B.C. when, at its peak, herb pollen made up 89.8% of the assemblage. A second, although less pronounced, period of elevated deforestation peaked at approximately A.D. 400 when herb pollen reached 65.3% of the assemblage. The first deforestation event likely coincided with the widespread adoption of agriculture, a pattern found elsewhere in Mesoamerica. The second period of forest clearance probably was associated with the incursion of Maya speakers into the Copan Valley and their subsequent construction of the earliest levels of the Copan Acropolis. These results refute the former hypothesis that the ancient Maya responded to their increasingly large urban population by exhausting, rather than conserving, natural resources.

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0904760107

Cite this paper

@article{McNeil2010EvidenceDD, title={Evidence disputing deforestation as the cause for the collapse of the ancient Maya polity of Copan, Honduras.}, author={Cameron L McNeil and David A. Burney and Lida Pigott Burney}, journal={Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America}, year={2010}, volume={107 3}, pages={1017-22} }