Human Ecology, Agricultural Intensification and Landscape Transformation at the Ancient Maya Polity of Uxbenká, Southern Belize
Culleton, Brendan J.
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Culleton, Brendan J.
Identifying connections between land use, population change, and natural and human-induced environmental change in ancient societies provides insights into the challenges we face today. This dissertation presents data from archaeological research at the ancient Maya center of Uxbenká, Belize, integrating chronological, geomorphological, and settlement data within an ecological framework to develop methodological and theoretical tools to explore connections between social and environmental change or stability during the Preclassic and Classic Period (~1000 BC to AD 900). High-precision AMS 14C dates from Uxbenká were integrated with stratigraphic information within a Bayesian framework to generate a high-resolution chronology of sociopolitical development and expansion in southern Belize. This chronology revises the previous understanding of settlement and development of Classic Maya society at Uxbenká and indicates specific areas of investigation to elucidate the Late and Terminal Classic periods (AD 600-900) when the polity appears to disintegrate. A geoarchaeological record of land use was developed and interpreted with respect to regional climatic and cultural histories to track landscape transformations associated with human-environment interactions at Uxbenká. The first documented episode of landscape instability (i.e., erosion) was associated with farmers colonizing the area. Later, landscape stability in the site core parallels Classic Period urbanization (AD 300-900) when swidden agriculture was likely restricted in the core. Another erosional event followed political disintegration as farmers resumed cultivation in and around the abandoned city. Maize yields derived from contemporary Maya farms in the area were used to estimate the maximum population size of Uxbenká during its Classic Period peak. The maximum sustainable population is estimated between 7500 and 13,000, including a potential population of ~525 elites in the core, assuming low levels of agricultural intensification. This accords well with the lack of archaeological evidence for intensive land management during the Classic Period (e.g., terraces). An ecological model developed using maize productivity and other environmental/social datasets largely predicts the settlement pattern surrounding Uxbenká. Settlements in marginal areas may be evidence of elite intra-polity competition during the Late Preclassic Period (ca. AD 1-300), though it is possible that marginal areas were settled early as garrisons to mediate travel into the site core.