Mayan Urbanism: Impact on a Tropical Karst Environment

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Science  19 Oct 1979:
Vol. 206, Issue 4416, pp. 298-306
DOI: 10.1126/science.206.4416.298


From the first millennium B.C. through the 9th-century A.D. Classic Maya collapse, nonurban populations grew exponentially, doubling every 408 years, in the twin-lake (Yaxha-Sacnab) basin that contained the Classic urban center of Yaxha. Pollen data show that forests were essentially cleared by Early Classic time. Sharply accelerated slopewash and colluviation, amplified in the Yaxha subbasin by urban construction, transferred nutrients plus calcareous, silty clay to both lakes. Except for the urban silt, colluvium appearing as lake sediments has a mean total phosphorus concentration close to that of basin soils. From this fact, from abundance and distribution of soil phosphorus, and from continuing post-Maya influxes (80 to 86 milligrams of phosphorus per square meter each year), which have no other apparent source, we conclude that riparian soils are anthrosols and that the mechanism of long-term phosphorus loading in lakes is mass transport of soil. Per capita deliveries of phosphorus match physiological outputs, approximately 0.5 kilogram of phosphorus per capita per year. Smaller apparent deliveries reflect the nonphosphatic composition of urban silt; larger societal outputs, expressing excess phosphorus from deforestation and from food waste and mortuary disposal, are probable but cannot be evaluated from our data. Eutrophication is not demonstrable and was probably impeded, even in less-impacted lakes, by suspended Maya silt. Environmental strain, the product of accelerating agroengineering demand and sequestering of nutrients in colluvium, developed too slowly to act as a servomechanism, damping population growth, at least until Late Classic time.