Ground-truthing the first LiDAR imagery of ancient Maya wetland fields: twenty years of field work and two days of LiDAR

Authors: Timothy Beach*, University of Texas at Austin, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, University of Texas at Austin, Fred Valdez, University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Guderjan, University of Texas at Tyler
Topics: Geomorphology, Soils, Paleoenvironmental Change
Keywords: LiDAR, Maya Wetlands, Tropical Forests, Soiols
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Grand Ballroom C, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2003, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach from a small plane rediscovered a kilometer square area of millennium old Maya canals in a remote wetland of the Belize-Mexico border. These fields happened to be in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area that afforded preservation from the region’s rampant deforestation. Our field teams hiked, boated, and macheted into these and surrounding areas to excavate and survey these complexly coupled natural-human systems. In 2016, we acquired a LiDAR survey of these features and their broader watershed. We discovered that the canal and field systems occupied a much larger area, nestled between ancient Maya cities. LiDAR also showed that these urban centers were much larger than pedestrian survey and opportunistic excavation under rainforest could ever show. Excavation from 2005 to 2017 was the other key ingredient to assess these field and canal systems, which showed the canal and field complexes dated to the Maya Classic, around 1300 years ago, and that they hold geochemical, pollen, and stratigraphic evidence of intensive polycultural production. The canals started filling in the Terminal Classic, around 1100 years ago, indicating the termination of canal maintenance. This coincided with the Maya Late Classic ‘Collapse’ and a series of droughts. This paper also considers the areal extent of the fields, their crops, and implications for food production and trade in food stuffs. Thus, this paper pairs the fourth dimension of change over time based on multiproxy excavations with the spatial dimensions of the field and canal extents and contexts.

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