Jungle surveyors in Guatemala uncover the breadbasket of the Maya world.
This article first appeared in Archaeology, V. 55, No. 1, January/February 2002,
in a slightly different form.
The abandoned city of Yaxhá has everything you might hope for at a Maya site: pyramids, stelae, howler monkeys, and a haunting sense of a tragic past. Nearby is the excavation headquarters, with its thatched-roof stucco buildings, the ceramics lab crammed with sherds and pots, its small army of diggers, masons, and machete-wielding workers.
All this seems as traditional as can be, yet, here, on the Yaxhá archaeologists' shaded porch, with its view of a sparkling lake and tropical jungle, there is a revolution in the making. And it advances a little further each time NASA's Tom Sever and Dan Irwin spread their wares before us on the floor.
I've joined Sever, Irwin, and their research partners Pat Culbert and Vilma Fialko at their base camp. We're wearing goofy cardboard 3D glasses. And we dare not take them off.
Sever and Irwin are unrolling pictures as big as bath towels, taken from satellites 400 miles out in space. These pictures turn a monotonous swamp, smothered in forest, into a sharply defined landscape, dotted with islands of habitable high ground, ancient reservoirs, long forgotten causeways, and pyramids that poke above the trees. And each new image makes us gasp.
Never has a research team seen the jungle in so many ways. There is a set of infrared images, a sharply etched mix of scarlet and black that show almost every tree; a topographic radar map of day-glo blue, red, and green; a turquoise and magenta jumble of dots that, through our 3D glasses, morphs into an upland ridge that juts from the paper like a cake.
And when we lift our heads we see jungle that surrounds us in reality, a green wall of tropical forest that stretches for miles and shrouds the Maya past.
Yaxhá is in Guatemala's Petén district, in the heart of the southern Maya lowlands, just outside Bajo La Justa, a sprawling 23-square-mile seasonal wetland 18 miles southeast of Tikal. Bajo La Justa is just one of many bajos that make up forty per cent of the Petén landscape. In the rainy season bajos are swampy thickets, great forested tracts of mud that mire any mule or human foolish enough to set foot in them.
But this is May, the last weeks of the dry season, and Sever, Irwin, and research partners Pat Culbert, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, and Vilma Fialko from Guatemala's Instituto de Antropologia e Historia, have been venturing in to this vast wasteland every day. They believe that the bajos, once ringed by Maya cities but long ignored by archaeologists, were the breadbasket of the Maya world.
Some 1300 years ago, after centuries of exponential growth, the southern Maya lowlands in present-day Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico were home to what Culbert terms “one of the most densely populated areas in the pre-industrial world.” The Maya city-states hosted a population of astonishing size; their magnificent pyramids towered over tens of thousands of dwellings. In the late Classic period, the Maya averaged over 500 people per square mile, more crowded than modern-day Indonesia, totaling many millions of people in an area the size of Maine.
Yet, disaster soon followed. In one of history's most puzzling demographic mysteries, Maya civilization collapsed. By 950 AD, the end of the Maya's Classic era, the lowland cities were largely deserted, their palaces crumbling, their millions gone.
There are many explanations for this catastrophe, with war, drought, and disease the most common. But Culbert and company find these explanations incomplete. In fact, they say that searching for a single cause for the collapse is misguided. The key to the Maya fall, they claim, lay in the mechanism that spawned the civilization's long period of exponential growth, in the finely tuned agricultural system that the Maya built to feed themselves.
Culbert, Fialko, Sever, and Irwin maintain that the Maya tamed the bajo wetlands with dams and canals, engineering the swamp into farmland, dotted with villages and administrative islands on higher ground. Says Culbert, “The fields must have been crammed with workers, laboring from dawn till dusk.” This way of life was resource hungry, strictly controlled, and was barely one step ahead of the demands put upon it. It formed the backbone of a society so delicately poised and ecologically fragile that virtually any glitch - religious, political, environmental - was enough bring it down.
Study the bajos, they say, and you'll understand how war may have been just a symptom, how a Maya drought may have been manmade, why the Maya could not save themselves forever. The team has embarked on a campaign to reconstruct what Culbert calls “an extinct agricultural system,” to pull back the jungle's thick green curtain with machetes and pack mules, ceramics and soil cores, NASA computers, local farming techniques, and state-of-the-art satellites in space.
They're also working with a sense of urgency, for they're certain that the past holds lessons for today. Stand atop Yaxhá's pyramids and your heart sinks: not twenty miles away, walls of smoke are rising to the sky. Settlers are swarming into the Petén, slashing and burning the rainforest, clearing cornfields and cattle pastures. The Mexican lowlands have been almost entirely deforested; the Guatemalan jungle is not far behind. There's a modern collapse in the making, Culbert and crew say, that the ancient Maya may help us avoid.
“People still think it's naïve to think that history can help us,” says Sever. “But I believe that we might be able to uncover how the Maya successfully lived in this area, and then take those farming techniques and use them today,” The goal is to adopt what worked for the Maya, but stop short of their excesses. “Obviously the Maya knew something. Now the question is, what is it?”
After spending a week in the bajo, I can understand why no one would ever go back. It has sweltering heat, impenetrable thickets, shrubs that ooze burning sap, four-inch wasps, lethal snakes, killer bees, and ants everywhere you sit. But it is also a place of entrancing beauty - a riot of leaves, an emerald green light, a symphony of birds. You pass countless Maya ruins snarled in rapacious roots, silent mounds sprouting trees and vines, the past's sleeping witnesses, eerie as ghosts.
The bajo seems a single, living entity that welcomes you with beauty and danger, comfort and pain. But to Pat Culbert, it has always offered promise.
“I adore the jungle here,” Culbert says. “Every day there's some little marvel.” On our walks into the bajo I've seen him entranced by sprays of red orchid, orange mushrooms on a log, and glistening blue butterflies whom he tries to woo with gentle words.
Pat Culbert, 71, is one of the grand old men of Maya studies. Visit the Tikal museum and you'll see his photo on the wall, in a group shot from the 1960s. His tall, lanky figure, broad glasses, and beard (although not then white) are instantly recognizable. In 1960 he began ten years of work as the ceramics expert at the University of Pennsylvania's Tikal excavation. He wrote the first complete description of the Tikal ceramic sequence, and his books are required reading at universities around the world. A professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, Culbert insists he's trying to spend less time in the jungle, but he does not seem to want to: he's already planning his next two years of field research.
Culbert has a fondness for melodrama, and he loves to play a hunch. He bets on sports games and poker slots, and in his research he has combined a gambler's instincts with a marathoner's tenacity. Twenty-five years ago he sensed conventional wisdom was wrong; he answered with his bajo theories, and now, decades later, he is finding definitive proof.
As Tikal's ceramics expert, Culbert scrutinized every sherd of the site's pottery, at first from the elite's temple tombs, then those from an ever growing number of house mounds discovered in 50 square miles around the city.
This ever-swelling river of pottery revealed a paradox. At the time, the Maya were thought to subsist on slash and burn agriculture, and they did during the Preclassic, when their population was no more than 100 people per square mile. But by 400 AD, in the middle of the Early Classic era, Tikal's population was over 250 per square mile in the city center. It would eventually double, totaling over 60,000 inhabitants at the city's peak. Slash and burn farming could never have supported so many.
In the 1970s, researchers were finding evidence of Maya wetlands agriculture in the Yucatan Peninsula. It was said that these raised fields in permanent wetlands - relatively few compared to the ubiquitous bajos - along with extensive root crop cultivation, kitchen gardens, multiple crops on terraced highland fields, and dry season plantings in river flood plains would fill the subsistence shortfall.
Culbert was unconvinced. If the Maya relied solely on these sources, the largest Late Classic Maya city-states would have had to import food from as far as fifty miles away. And he kept bumping up against one long known fact. Nine of the region's major sites border on bajos. For example, Tikal is on the edge of Bajo de Santa Fe, Calakmul borders Bajo El Labertino, Yaxhá and Nakum flank Bajo La Justa. How could the Maya dismiss a resource so close at hand?
“You can't have a population density of 500 people per square kilometer and ignore forty per cent of the landscape,” Culbert says. He maintains that the Maya not only planted two crops during the rainy season on elevated ridges, but they used the bajos during the dry season as well. Canals cut into the bajos could have sped drainage of the rainy season's floods. This would have allowed earlier planting at the dry season's onset and extended the growing season long enough for the harvests of two dry season crops.
In the late 1970s Culbert joined a team that used airborne radar in a groundbreaking study to pierce the forest canopy and survey the bajos for proof of widespread cultivation. But no sooner were their data published, than critics began to tear it apart. Unfortunately, their canals and wetland fields were phony signals spawned by system noise, false echoes, and cracks in the limestone bedrock.
But Culbert pressed on. And in 1989, he discovered drainage canals cut into a bajo near Rio Azul in northeastern Guatemala. It was the first drained field system found in the Petén.
There are three essential resources for a successful agricultural system: fertile ground to farm, people to work and manage it, and water. Skeptics have long doubted the bajo had any of these things.
But smack in the middle of Bajo la Justa, between Yaxhá and Nakum, is a site that shows the presence of all three.
Poza Maya stands like a citadel high above the forest, atop a ridge that the Maya modified to form a sheer bluff 90 feet high. It has palaces, temples, and 60-foot pyramids, forty large structures arranged around nine courtyards, built upon floor after floor of older, buried plazas.
There's a squarish artificial aguada, a waterhole or reservoir, known as Maya Aguada, half a mile away. This aguada is a marvel. Two hundred-fifty yards on a side, bermed with walls more than six feet high, it is cut as cleanly into the bajo as if it were carved with a giant knife and stands out as a huge square in the satellite pictures.
First described in the 1970s, Poza Maya is an enormous site for a bajo, undoubtedly an administrative center and a place of wealth and power.
Then in the early 1990s, there came a new discovery, one that intrigued Guatemalan archaeologist Vilma Fialko as few things had before. In the bottom of a looters trench sliced deep into a pyramid, archaeologists discovered a broken pot, part of a sacred offering. Inside was a tiny ear of ancient corn.
Fialko, 47, is Director of Intersite Surveys for Project Triangle, the most ambitious archaeological research effort in the history of the Petén.
Sponsored jointly by Guatemala and Germany, the project is excavating and restoring the Maya cities of Yaxhá, Nakum, and Naranjo, and exploring the jungle in between. Its ultimate goal is to create a national park as a buffer between existing reserves and the encoraching destruction.
A handsome woman with a wide face, high cheekbones, and thick black hair, Fialko spends two weeks a month, six months a year, deep in the rain forest. Since 1994 she has been leading a team of 24 archaeologists, topographers, and laborers on grueling twelve-hour days. They cut trails over ridges and highlands, across rivers, and through the bajos. They survey the land, map ruins, dig test pits, and analyze the unearthed ceramics across a swath of jungle a half-mile wide. It's brutal, exhausting work: the 14-mile survey between Nakum and Tikal took her a year and a half.
But Fialko thrives on it, and the jungle has worked itself deep into her bones. In 1999, when she was a scholar in residence at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC, she felt homesick. “It wasn't Guatemala homesick,” says Fialko. “It was jungle homesick.” She papered her office with huge photographs of the rain forest. “It was solid green. But I felt much better.”
Fialko has long been fascinated with how the Maya adapted to different environments. Her surveys for Project Triangle span unmapped jungle and cross a spectrum of habitats and ancient communities large and small.
On her bajo transects, Fialko found remains of residential structures on “islands” of high ground above the level of the rainy season floods. Ceramics showed their fortune mirrored that of the larger Maya lowlands - occupation began in the Preclassic, and ended with the Late Classic collapse.
In 1993, Fialko met Culbert at a conference, and he agreed to join her study. Soon after, she sent him the sample of Poza Maya corn. Culbert had it radiocarbon dated - it was the fruit of a Maya harvest in approximately 500 AD.
Corn at Poza Maya. Why couldn't it have come from the bajo itself? Skeptics say the dry season soil is too parched and refractory to human labor. To find out, Culbert and Fialko turned to local experts who know the bajo plants and soil best: milperos who clear and farm milpas, or cornfields; gum tapping chicleros who gather sap from chicle trees; and xateros, who collect wild sprays of xate palm for international export to florists. The locals told them the bajo soil is not homogenous, but varies, with some areas useless for farming, others highly prized.
The most desirable of all is dominated by palm trees, indicating soil that is well drained, yet sufficiently moist. Culbert and Fialko once again walked Fialko's transects and bajo roads. They counted plants and tested the soil. One third of the transect was palm bajo, its moist dark soil more hospitable to farming than even that of upland forests. Along a bajo road, two thirds of the bajo was fertile palm.
But these transects were just two narrow samples. To prove the potential of the entire bajo, Fialko and Culbert could cut more survey transects. But it would take them years to achieve a systematic overview. They needed another technique to confirm their theory's promise, a method that would let them study the whole region, rather than one site at a time.
The Maya lived in a tripartite universe - below was Xibalba, the watery home of the Lords of the Dead; in the middle was our material world, borne on the back of a giant turtle; in the sky above, the sun and planets followed the long, scaly body of the Cosmic Monster, a two-headed beast representing the Milky Way. Maya kings, queens, and high priests communicated with the lords of Xibalba and the heavens through Vision Serpents - giant, twisting hallucinatory snakes that appeared to the elect when they pierced their tongues or penises and shed their sacred blood.
Fortunately, communicating with the sky is a bit easier these days, and it's essential to Tom Sever and Dan Irwin's work. As we stand in a cool grove of shady corozal palms, beneath the arching domes formed by their long, feathery leaves, Sever and Irwin are capturing satellite signals with their Global Positioning System receiver. Their aim is to pinpoint this grove's exact latitude and longitude, find it on their high-altitude images, and use its characteristics to locate and measure the extent of similar groves that grow throughout the bajo.
Sever and Irwin have been working together for three years, and it's hard to imagine a more tightly meshed partnership. At 52, Sever is NASA's only staff archaeologist, an expert in ancient astronomy and modern-day space science. Although it may seem odd for an archaeologist to be on NASA's roster, Sever plays an important role in the agency's efforts to understand planet Earth. He virtually invented the methods of using airborne or satellite data - remote sensing, or RS - to interpret archaeological sites. Irwin, 33, is one of a new generation of RS specialists who are expanding the field's horizons. The detailed digital images he can weave amaze even Sever.
“We now have all these great instruments in space to measure the atmosphere, the aerosols, and the ozone hole,” Sever says. “But in the strata of past civilizations are similar answers that we can uncover to tell us about who we are, about how we lived, about how environments worked.”
Culbert and Fialko asked Sever to join their project in 1995 in the hopes his high altitude images could help them quantify bajo vegetation. But they soon saw that his imagery could do what Culbert's own pioneering radar survey could not: reveal the canals, causeways, and structures hidden in the forest canopy.
Sever, 52, is a tall, athletic man with a short moustache, a ready laugh, and a relentless devotion to the potential of RS. When I first met him at his office at the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Alabama, I was taken in by his languid Missouri Ozark drawl. But Sever is hardly laid back. His mental engines run at light speed, and he likes to keep them stoked. His dream, he half jokes, is to become a short order breakfast cook, thriving on the flood of shouted orders and the fry-grill's multi-tasking frenzy.
In his teens, unhappy at seminary school, he “fell in love with the sky.” Escaping his dorm after dark he found solace in the stars and filled the night with invented constellations like the Tugboat, the Robot, and the Baseball Bats. For his masters in archaeology and astronomy at the University of Illinois, he studied Anasazi astronomy and their observatories at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, Colorado. He spent a summer in Peru, mapping the Quechan Inca's ceques, sacred lines that radiate from Cuzco's Golden Temple of the Sun. There are 42 of these lines inscribed in the ground that fan out for miles into the mountains; in three months Sever and his colleagues could trace just two and a half.
“I felt there just had to be a better way then walking through the Andes in this tedious, laborious, intensive activity.” The better way he envisioned was with the eye of a satellite high in the sky.
Remote sensing is the practice of observing objects and phenomena from a distance. The human eye is a kind of remote sensor, sensitive to the energy of visible light. But visible light is just a narrow sliver of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. By using coated films or electronic sensors sensitive to, say, near infrared or thermal radiation, remote sensors can clue in to the energy humming from the objects all around us and pluck out information we would otherwise be unable to detect.
Every substance has its own spectral signature - it emits or reflects energy at a number of characteristic wavelengths. Remote sensors read these spectral signatures and can distinguish oak from maple trees, granite from sandstone, a clear spring from a muddy pond. In fact, spectral signatures can be so distinct that satellites can detect disturbed soil over gravesites, a buried wall releasing the sun's warmth at night, or an irrigation ditch, now filled with sediment, that hosts a distinct crop of plants. These individual spectral signatures, assigned false colors with computers, make hidden features leap to the eye.
RS satellites, however, do not free researchers from investigations on the ground. When satellites pass over fresh territory, or when a new generation of remote sensors flies aloft, they detect undefined spectral signatures. Scientists must link these signatures to the corresponding material in the field by visiting suspected ruins or other features to find out exactly what they are. Sever calls this process “ground-truthing.” “Without it,” he says, “we'd just see chaos.”
The first generation of remote sensors - cameras sent aloft in hot air balloons - took pictures for archaeology as early as 1891. But twenty-five years ago, when Sever first tried to convince colleagues that satellite RS could change their world, his message went unheeded. The 1970s Landsat satellite could not detect any object smaller than 250 feet across; data processing was expensive; and there was an aversion to mathematics in what was, essentially, a conservative branch of the Humanities. “Computers, RS, and multivariate analysis were not the typical things archaeologists were used to,” Sever says.
In 1978, Sever quit his high school teaching job to crunch numbers at NASA's RS laboratory, the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. He spent years mastering the computer algorithms that turn spectral signatures into useful images.
In 1982, Sever's NASA colleagues flew over Chaco Canyon and scanned its prehistoric Anasazi Indian villages with a new type of sensor, the Thermal Infrared Multispectral Scanner (TIMS). The TIMS has five-meter resolution and is so sensitive it can measure temperature differentials of a tenth of a degree. Sever massaged the data for months, bringing to light foundations, fields, and thousand-year old roads. Eventually, with the help of Boston University's James Wiseman, he co-sponsored a landmark 1984 conference where he presented his findings to two dozen of the United States' leading archaeologists and won them over to RS.
In the years since, Sever has used remote sensors on satellites, the Space Shuttle, jets, prop planes, and helicopters. He has found ancient Biblical watchtowers, pre-historic footpaths buried in volcanic ash, and features associated with the long-sought Maya Site Q. In 1993 he discovered the remains of the Wright Brothers' 1910 hangar with a NASA sensor developed to detect Space Shuttle leaks.
Sever's passion has not come cost-free. On one ground-truthing mission he contracted chronic malaria, and once a band of leftwing Guatemalan guerrillas captured and held him at gunpoint for ten horrific hours.
But in Central America, Sever's impact has been profound. In 1988 he studied a proposed hydroelectric dam project on Guatemala's Usumacinta River that threatened to submerge dozens of Petén villages and some of the most important Maya sites in Central America. Sever produced a startling Landsat image - the river's Mexican side was almost totally deforested; in Guatemala, the land was still thick with trees. When the Guatemalan president saw the picture he halted the project and convinced the presidents of Mexico and the other Central American countries to pledge to protect the environment.
One result was the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a continuous green belt of parks and nature reserves that will eventually stretch from southern Mexico to Panama. Sever shares responsibility for mapping and monitoring the Corridor, and he hired environmental scientist Dan Irwin to help.
Irwin is a short, spirited, gregarious man, and he seems to know every laborer, driver, gum tapper, and scientist in the Petén. He worked for four years in the district as a remote sensing specialist for Conservation International and spent weeks at a time conducting vegetation surveys in the jungle. In 1996 he married a woman from rural San Andrés, a village of chicleros and xateros that depends on the forest for survival.
The Petén's future weighs heavily on Irwin. In San Andrés, now his second home, he has built a children's library and a handful of businesses - a ferryboat service, a family billiard parlor, an ironworks, an internet café - to provide education and employment alternatives to the temptation of slash-and-burn farming. And he has brought generators and slide projectors to isolated jungle villages, where excited crowds turned out to see his slide shows of bird's-eye-views. At first, no one knew what they were looking at, and Irwin had to teach them how to read the pictures. “They started seeing a road they knew, a lake, and then the forest boundaries. Their mental light bulbs went on, and I'll never forget it - they started to realize they'd better take these conservation projects seriously.” He adds “RS is not a silver bullet, but it's an amazing tool.”
Fialko and Culbert have used the RS imagery to locate elevated ridges and bajo islands, and virtually every one they visit hosts a site. They have discovered settlements occupied for generations, some with hundreds of structures and elite residences yielding shards of polychrome pots. They use RS to pinpoint the most promising sites for their excavations, and to help them find landmarks, old roads, and trails.
Deep in Bajo Santa Fe, Fialko has discovered a 1.5 mile wide forest of Chiapas white pines growing in the scrub, the only pines for a hundred miles. The satellite images led her to a 50-foot wide bajo island in its midst, where she and Liwy Grazioso, her field director, have excavated a curious square building. Its quarried stone was brought from three miles away, and it held artifacts of the elite: obsidian eccentrics, polished stone ear plugs, and a bracelet of tiny, carved shell figures, their hands clasped as if bound.
The team is unsure of the building's exact function. But whether it was a small temple in a natural grove, or the lookout for an overseer tending a Maya timberland, there's now no doubt that the bajos were a routine part of the Maya world.
In a land where 90% of the rain falls between May and December, where the porous limestone bedrock sucks away water like a sponge, the Maya made extraordinary efforts to save every drop. Satellite pictures show canal networks and miles of grand causeways that may have been aqueducts. Fialko has found dams and weirs on bajo streams. She has discovered that the flood plain of the Holmul River, once a year-round bajo river linking many of the area's largest cities, is peppered with reservoirs and chultuns, the Maya's bottle-shaped, underground storage caves that may here have been dug to catch water.
The team asked Nick Dunning, a University of Cincinnati environmental archaeologist, to take a look a the bajo's soil history. In corings from upland lakes and trenches in dry dirt from several bajos, he found that the Maya's environment underwent a drastic change midway through their tenure. Beginning around 100 AD, most of the area's surface water disappeared. Several feet below the bajo's surface is a layer of what was once moist wetland peat, rich with pollen from trees, aquatic plants, and corn; at the end of the Preclassic era, and for the next five-hundred years, this soil was buried in successive layers of waterborne limestone clay.
These strata tell a story. When paired with the bajo's archaeological evidence, and the findings of other researchers throughout the lowlands, the history of the Maya environment becomes clear. It is a saga of ecological exploitation, change, adaptation, and defeat.
The Maya first took up residence in the lowlands around 4000 BC. The bajos were then year-round wetlands or shallow lakes fringed with water lilies, cat tails, and grass land. The Maya prospered on their shores. They were soon sowing seed in their marshlands, and clearing the forests in adjacent uplands to farm.
As the Maya population grew, slash and burn farming chewed through the upland forests. Ultimately virtually every tree in sight was cut. Erosion and evaporation quickened. Rain scoured away the upland's fertile soil, and wore at the limestone beneath. The rock, eroded to powder, washed down hill, filling the bajo's shallow basins with fine-grained clay.
By the end of the late Preclassic era, around 100 AD, the Maya had transformed their environment. The bajos had silted up. The permanent wetlands were gone. Rain ponds and puddles now lingered in the bajos only into the dry season's first sun-baked weeks. For five months a year, water was scarce.
The Maya had to adapt. Nakbe and Mirador, large urban centers that once thrived on the bajos' edge, were abandoned. At other cities, water control grew paramount; the Maya built large reservoirs at Calakmul, Uaxhactún, La Milpa and other urban centers. At Tikal alone, there are ten reservoirs with a 40-million-gallon capacity, built to capture the runoff from the city center's paved plazas.
For food they farmed the bajos, cutting irrigation ditches into the limestone clay and planting on mounds beside them. They built a network of administrative settlements on bajo islands. They dammed arroyos and bled water from the rivers. The population doubled, then doubled again.
This adaptation was successful - for a time. The cities grew more crowded, the elite more numerous, the temples and palaces grander still. But by the Late Classic, around 750 AD, the system's capacity had been reached. Skeletons from the last decades of Maya rule unearthed at Tikal, Altar de Sacrificios, and Copan suggest a decline in stature and show an increased number of scars from malnourishment. The soil was exhausted, the farming infrastructure weak. Warfare increased. Polities fractured. The end had come.
On one of our last afternoons I dragged the team to the top of Yaxhá's Temple 216 for a picture, even Pat Culbert, who abjures pyramids and hates heights. The sun was brutal, and we were tired. We had hiked much of that morning, journeying to ground-truth a strange feature revealed in the pictures, only to be chased from the site by killer wasps.
Temple 216 is a towering pyramid that overlooks Lake Yaxhá, mountains, and a panorama of jungle. But the view that day was sobering. The sky was hazy with the ash of smoking rainforest. To the east, a dozen fires burned.
The Petén landscape is undergoing its greatest transformation since the Maya stripped it bare. In the last forty years it has lost half its forest as its population shot from 20,000 to 400,000. By the year 2020, if current laws protecting the Guatemalan rainforest are strictly enforced, only sixteen per cent of its original coverage will remain; if deforestation continues unabated, only two percent will survive.
But even as we discover that history is repeating itself, one wonders how much more we will learn. As roads slice the jungle open and a quilt of farmland spreads, the soft limestone Maya ruins, stripped of shade, fall prey to heat and rainfall and crumble in the sun. Looters rush in, trash tombs, and buzz-saw sculpture. Many ancient buildings are so perforated with holes they are in danger of collapse.
The team is hurrying to unlock the Maya's secrets, for it is obvious the historical evidence is not all that is imperiled.
Says Sever, “We're literally in a race against time.”
Copyright © 2002 Tom Gidwitz