Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Human Ecology, Agricultural Intensification and Landscape Transformation at the Ancient Maya Polity of Uxbenka, Southern Belize

Project: Research project

Project Details


Under the supervision of Dr. Douglas J. Kennett, Brendan Culleton will conduct archaeological research on intensive land use strategies, and social and environmental change at the ancient Maya site of Uxbenká. Uxbenká emerged as the first urban center in southern Belize ca. AD 250, and grew in prominence by mediating regional trade routes until abandonment ca. AD 850. In many parts of the Maya world the emergence of city-states like Uxbenká increased pressure on local ecosystems for food production and water resources due to greater population density, elite tribute demands, and short- to long-term climate fluctuations. This project will investigate the social and environmental consequences of intensive forest clearing, crop production and settlement expansion at Uxbenká through field survey and excavation of soil and water conservation features, household groups, and computer simulations of human ecological interactions.

Deforestation and soil erosion are taken as symptoms of the environmental degradation of the Classic Maya period, setting the stage for the Terminal Classic 'Maya Collapse' at the hands of 'megadroughts'. Though the Maya megadroughts and human ecological impacts have captured the public imagination, various soil and water management strategies were employed throughout the Maya region to counter ecological degradation and promote social stability for extended periods. Because the Maya occupied diverse ecological zones and developed local strategies to solve local problems, site-specific studies of landscape alteration (forest clearing, cultivation, terracing, irrigation) are needed to understand how societies emerge, persist and disintegrate in a changing human ecosystem. In the wetter climate and richer soils of southern Belize, did the droughts that struck the Yucatán and the Petén have similar catastrophic effects? Or, were human-environment interactions more complex, and the demise of Uxbenká a more dynamic story? To bring these complexities to light, this project will employ strategic excavations and radiocarbon dating of previously identified household groups, and geoarchaeological and trace element analysis of water- and soil-management features at Uxbenká and associated household groups. This record of landscape alteration and settlement expansion will be articulated with regional climate records to explore the interconnected causes and consequences of resource intensification in an emerging Maya political center. A parallel computer simulation of settlement and farming decision-making will complement the archaeological work by examining outcomes various social and ecological scenarios over several millennia.

The growing public concern over the fates of societies places great demands on archaeologists and the archaeological record to go beyond descriptions of 'collapses' to explain the processes by which complex societies coalesce and disintegrate, and to provide insights into our own future prospects in an increasingly interdependent global society. This requires archaeologists to grapple with diverse bodies of social, ecological and climatic data, and this project will train the co-PI and numerous undergraduate assistants who will assist in the lab and the field. Continuing community outreach in the local Maya community of Santa Cruz adjacent to Uxbenká will enhance the public understanding science and the importance of managing heritage resources. Research findings will be disseminated to the scientific community through peer-reviewed publications, participation in national and international conferences, and public lectures.

Effective start/end date7/1/0811/30/10


  • National Science Foundation: $14,998.00


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