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Soil Science Society of America Journal Abstract - Pedology

Upland and Lowland Soil Resources of the Ancient Maya at Tikal, Guatemala


This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 76 No. 6, p. 2083-2096
    Received: June 2, 2012
    Published: October 24, 2012

    * Corresponding author(s): richard_terry@byu.edu
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  1. Richard L. Burnetta,
  2. Richard E. Terry *a,
  3. Ryan V. Sweetwooda,
  4. David Websterb,
  5. Tim Murthac and
  6. Jay Silversteind
  1. a Dep. of Plant and Wildlife Sciences Brigham Young Univ.,Provo, UT 84602, USA
    b Dep. of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park, PA 16802, USA
    c Dep. of Landscape Architecture, Pennsylvania State Univ., University Park, PA 16802, USA
    d Intelligence and GIS Section, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, Hickam AFB, HI 96853-5530, USA


Debate over agricultural methods and productivity during the Preclassic and Classic Maya period (1000 BCE to 900 CE) focuses on the agronomic utility of both upland and lowland soil resources of the karst topography characteristic of northern Guatemala and much of the Yucatan peninsula. In settings where direct evidence of agriculture is sparse, stable carbon (C) isotope evidence from soil organic matter (SOM) provides information on past vegetation changes related to ancient maize agriculture. Areas of ancient sustained maize cultivation can be identified in an ecosystem dominated by C3 forest vegetation because of the unique C4 photosynthetic pathway of maize. The decomposition of plant materials with divergent photosynthetic mechanisms (C3 versus C4) results in SOM with correspondingly distinct stable C isotope ratios (δ13C). Such differences are preserved and detectable within the refractory humin fraction of the SOM. This study analyzes the physical and chemical soil properties including stable C isotopes of soils collected from upland and lowland locations near Tikal, Guatemala. Toeslope soils contained strong isotopic evidence of C4 vegetation likely the result of ancient maize agriculture, while the evidence from shallow soils of the summit and backslopes was less conclusive. In both upland and lowland contexts, however, the stronger evidence of ancient vegetation shifts associated with maize agriculture was found in the deeper fine-textured soils in the footslopes and toeslopes. Examination of soils on toeslopes revealed evidence of deposition from erosional processes upslope that may have been related to the spread of agriculture to less productive soils over time.

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Copyright © 2012. Copyright © by the Soil Science Society of America, Inc.