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Farm Terracing and Soils in the Maya Hinterlands: Exploring Soil Properties within the Terraced Landscape of Yax Ch’am in Northwestern Belize

Authors: Byron Smith*, University of Texas at Austun, Stanton Morse, Humboldt State University , Marisol Cortes-Rincon, Humboldt State University, Timothy Beach, University of Texas at Austin
Topics: Physical Geography, Land Use, Soils
Keywords: Soil, geoarchaeology, Central America
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The ancient Maya site of Yax Ch’am in northwestern Belize represents a Late Classic (1,351 to 1,051 bp) informal household group located within the hinterlands of the nearby, much larger ceremonial center of Dos Hombres. Previous studies at Yax Ch’am indicate evidence of intensive farming through the presence of contour terraces and an extensive network of water catchment features. Additionally, ceramic analysis suggests site abandonment occurred during the Terminal Classic (1,101 to 1,051 bp) based on the presence of Tepeu-3 series ceramics. The transitional forest that has grown since abandonment includes species such as Gymnanthes lucida, Manilkara zapota, and Matayba oppositifolia. This research sought to study the effectiveness of terrace construction by mapping the distribution of soil properties across the terraced landscape. The field methods used for this project included pedestrian survey, excavation (to expose the terrace retaining wall), and soil description and sampling. Laboratory analysis of soils measured for pH, as well as total and available phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, ferric iron, manganese, boron, copper, zinc, and aluminum. The results of this investigation indicate that the landscape modifications implemented by Maya farmers had long lasting affects on the landscape that can be seen today through the distribution of arboreal species, as well as increased soil fertility within terraced regions.

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