chapter  1
The Context of the Maya Forest /
Pages 20

The conventional story of the magnificent Maya civilization ends with the disappearance of the Maya people and destruction of their environment in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. This myth persists despite historical accounts that disprove it. Cortés, on his march to Lake Petén Itzá, describes the area as populated, feeding and housing his army of more than 3,000. Moreover, the continuous 30-century period of population development of the ancient Maya Lowlands-from the Preclassic to the Terminal Classic period, through the Colonial period and into present times-represents long-lasting continuity. The source of Maya wealth lay in their landscape and in their profound understanding of how to use it. In fact, the Maya’s subtle patterns are embedded within the forest structure. The historical ecology of this forest is complex (cf. Balée 2006); to understand it means examining contemporary agroecology of traditional farming and the paleoenvironmental record of the Late Classic Maya. An overview of the Maya timeline and the chronology of the environmental record reveal the discrepancy between the growth and sophistication of the Classic period Maya and the imagined environmental destruction. While most studies of the Maya assume that the collapse of the civilization was related to deforestation, such as that caused by humans, today the Maya forest is known for its remarkable diversity and its abundance of useful plants.