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Niche Construction as Adaptation: The Ancient Maya Wetland Fields of Acalan

Authors: Nicholas Dunning*, University of Cincinnati, Ruhl Thomas, University of Cincinnti, Chistopher Carr, University of Cincinnati, Clifford Brown, Florida Atlantic University, Timothy Beach, University of Texas at Austin
Topics: Paleoenvironmental Change, Latin America, Land Use and Land Cover Change
Keywords: Maya Lowlands, Geoarchaeology
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


An extensive array of wetland fields is clearly visible on satellite imagery of the Laguna de Terminos area in southwestern Campeche, Mexico. The Laguna de Terminos is hydrologically complex, receiving discharge from several major and minor drainage systems. The field systems occur only in the northern portion of the lagoon wetlands, an area that is subject to lesser amounts of water-level fluctuation. The fields occupy a topographic niche between roughly 3 and 5 meters above mean sea level (amsl). The ancient Maya opportunistically exploited this niche, constructing an elaborate system of wetland fields, apparently over many years. Several different morphometric field forms are evident, ranging from larger, more amorphous examples, to smaller, densely packed rectangulate types. Our examination of available data on ancient, Contact period, and historic settlement in the Laguna de Terminos region leads us to hypothesize that the field system likely developed over multiple cultural-historical periods. We also compare the Laguna de Terminos fields to those already known to occur along the middle reaches of the Rio Candelaria, many near the large archaeological site of El Tigre, the probable location of Itzamkanac, the capital of the Late Postclassic polity of Acalan. We further compare the Laguna de Terminos fields with those known in other regions of the Maya Lowlands and coastal lowlands along the Gulf of Mexico. The Acalan fields forms the largest contiguous wetland agricultural complex thus far documented in Mesoamerica.

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