New data co-led by a McMaster researcher offers fresh insights into patterns of settlement, agricultural infrastructure and economic practices in ancient Maya settlements dating back to the Classic period (AD 350 – 900).
The study used high-resolution airborne light detection and ranging technology (LIDAR), to analyze archaeological sites in 331 square kilometres of the Upper Usumacinta River basin of Mexico and Guatemala.
LIDAR technology brings into high relief the features of the landscape below current vegetation.
Shanti Morell-Hart, an associate professor of anthropology at McMaster, co-authored the study, which was published in the journal Remote Sensing.
“This is the first research study to really dive into the LIDAR data and explore the relationships between where people were living, their agricultural strategies, and how they managed the landscape,” Morell-Hart says.
“Through new types of LIDAR data analysis, as well as previous ground-based archaeological analysis, we were able to see very clear, distinct ways of settling and developing the landscape.”
Researchers uncovered divergent patterns of agricultural infrastructure and variable settlement patterns across the upper Usumacinta River basin.
Communities carefully tailored their infrastructure to local topographic and hydrologic conditions, building check dams, terraces, and extensive irrigation channels.
These features are usually hidden to the naked eye by thick vegetation but can be revealed through LIDAR technologies and specialized data analysis.
Researchers found that different patterns of agriculture molded to different geographies not only generated higher crop yields, but permitted surplus that could be used for tribute, taxation and market exchange in the dynastic centres.
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