Stories from the Field

History of Maya as told by caves

Pete Akers' research examined the connections between the local climate changes and the demographic history of the Maya.

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I traveled to Belize to perform the field work of my thesis research.  My research examined the connections between the local climate changes and the demographic history of the Maya.  The ancient Maya flourished in Middle America for over 1000 years, but their history is interspersed with multiple instances of population and monument decline.  The most well-known decline occurred around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization, culture, and cities largely disappeared.  This decline varied in timing and intensity across the Maya region, so finding local climate records is important to better understand human-environment links.  My work uses cave stalagmites as a climate record proxy, and the abundance of caves in the Maya region of Belize offered a great field work opportunity.

I worked for a week in the interior of Belize with a team of six fellow cave and paleoclimate researchers.  During this week, we explored five caves across the central Belize countryside.  We looked for stalagmites that were the appropriate size and shape for later laboratory work, collected our samples, and prepared them for transport back to UGA.  Along with rock and stalagmite samples, I took multiple water samples and temperature/humidity readings.  One of the caves had a 10 m vertical drop for its entrance, requiring some of the team members to rappel into the cave.  At the main room of this cave, we found three large Maya pots (olla) which had likely been sitting in the cave for over 1000 years.  Although my focus was on stalagmites, we also collected cave sediment samples by hammering PVC pipes into the floor of the cave and a few sections of tufa found in the surface streams.  I learned to be both focused on the planned research, but also to be open and flexible to any unforeseen field work opportunities that you happen to come across.

The latter half of the field trip involved visiting several Maya archaeological sites and cities, where we could better understand how the Classic Maya designed and located their cities with regards to their natural environment.  We were able to see in person the various drainage pathways and techniques the Maya used to drain and store rainwater.  Perhaps the greatest benefit of the field work was not simply accomplishing the initial objectives, but rather gaining a greater understanding of the entire landscape and history encompassing my research sites.

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