From Earth and Sky: Human-Plant Relationships in the Ancient Mopan River Valley Socioecological System




Friedel, Rebecca Ann

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This project examines the role of plant diversity in the resilience and vulnerability of socioecological systems using an archaeological case study of the ancient Maya of the Mopan River valley, Belize. Archaeologists have documented major sociopolitical transformations in this region, including the development of complexity, political cycling, and a valley-wide sociopolitical collapse. In addition, climate reconstructions have revealed several periods of drought during the region's history. Understanding how these histories relate to one another requires a diachronic examination of the intersection of human action with the biophysical world, or human-environment relationships. This project focuses on human-plant relationships to test the hypothesis that: the maintenance of high diversity is critical to the resilience of socioecological systems in the face of perturbations. This hypothesis is supported if this project finds that: 1) plant diversity is high before and during early perturbations that did not cause a collapse of the system and 2) plant diversity decreases leading up to the collapse of the system in the Terminal Classic period. To examine the nuances of this hypothesis, this project studies plant diversity dynamics and the human behaviors or ecological processes driving those dynamics using diachronic, multi-proxy data at both landscape and localized scales. Palynological data from sediment cores are a proxy for shifts in diversity of regional vegetation, which were driven in part by agricultural, forestry, and horticultural practices of the ancient Maya, and by climatic and geomorphological fluctuations. These related dynamics are assessed using diachronic data in the form of charcoal counts and morphotype identifications as well as smear slide characterizations from sediment cores along with macrobotanical data from archaeological contexts. Generally, these data aid in understanding the shifts in practices and preferences or natural phenomena that drive broader changes in system diversity. Together, these paleoecological and archaeobotanical data allow for understanding the nuances of human-plant relationships and their role in the resilience and vulnerabilities of a socioecological system.


The author has granted permission for their work to be available to the general public.


Soils, Sediments, Horticulture, Visualization, Human remains, Agriculture, Creeks & streams, Rain, Ancient Maya, Archaeobotany, Diversity, Human-plant relationships, Landscapes, Resilience