American archaeologist and anthropologist Anabel Ford has spent four decades studying the Maya civilization, principally at El Pilar, the ancient city she discovered on the border of today’s Belize and Guatemala. She also carries out research on Maya culture, which she describes as “one of the world’s greatest civilizations”, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she is Director of the MesoAmerican Research Center and President of the non-profit Exploring Solutions Past.
Dr Ford, who won a Rolex Award in 2000 to “re-establish Maya ‘forest gardens’ [at El Pilar] as a model for conservation”, has published six books and numerous articles demonstrating the Maya people’s competence as gardeners and farmers, a major addition to the traditional image of Maya as gifted mathematicians, astrologers and warriors. El Pilar, with around 180,000 people living in about 1,300 square kilometres, was, according to Ford, a major population centre for the Maya in their Late Classic period, the apex of their civilization about 1,400 to 1,100 years ago.
Her latest book, a multidisciplinary scholarly study written with ecological anthropologist Ronald Nigh and titled The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands, is arguably the most important of her publications thus far. The study challenges the widely-held view that, in the 9th century, Maya civilization and agriculture collapsed, as the Maya were unable to feed their rising population and engaged in deforestation to plant crops. At the same time as presenting an alternative view of Maya history, the study indirectly challenges Western notions of agriculture, based on the use of draught animals and cleared land – and points out that there is another way.
The Mayas’ milpa agricultural methods are complex and labour-intensive, with none of the draught animals and ploughing essential to Western agriculture. Milpa is a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica (the region of central-southeastern Mexico and northern Central America where important pre-Hispanic civilizations flourished). Milpa refers to the growing of crops of maize (corn), along with beans and squash (often planted alongside each other); but these crops were alternated, with the same land later being planted as forest garden and then as forest.
While the Maya civilization is still admired, the widely held view that the culture and its people suffered a collapse in the 9th century because of deforestation is wrong, says Ford. On the contrary, the evidence points to another conclusion: “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.”
In the book, she and Dr Nigh use research of crops at El Pilar to show that plentiful quantities of maize, considered a staple of the Maya people, and many other crops could have been grown to sustain the local population. Furthermore, when land was planted as forest, 90 per cent of trees grown produced fruit, such as avocados, that could be eaten by humans. Animals that roamed the forests and were eaten by the Maya are still there today, suggesting that there was no collapse in terms of the food supply.
“Maya civilization developed with a reliance on farmers,” Ford says. “That the civilization grew and was sustained over 20 centuries suggests a resilient and refined agricultural system.” Praising some Maya achievements while doubting their farming competence is to misunderstand their civilization, she says. “The contradiction [proposed by some scholars] between the glorified ancient Maya culture and the disparaged indigenous Maya agriculture bewilders us.”
Ford believes, in fact, that the collapse was due to political problems and that “when political crises struck Classic Maya society, the population largely retired to the forest garden, leaving elite centres abandoned… We know that the public infrastructure – temples, palaces, plazas – were gradually left to the elements. The neglect of building maintenance speaks directly to the failure of the political economy, however, and not the disappearance of the farmers. The Classic Maya regents’ power to collect tributes and fund public projects clearly broke down.”
While every agricultural system disturbs the natural environment, Ford says that milpa is far less invasive than most systems as it “works with the forest and it is integral to its creation and sustainability”. Western bias or “ecological imperialism”, as Dr Ford calls it, means that agriculture and forests are viewed as incompatible. “Some scholars erroneously use the term ‘arable’ to describe lands used for farming by the Maya or other pre-Hispanic societies in the New World that developed innovative and successful strategies without use of the plough or draught animals (which they did not have),” she explains.
In the same way that milpa has been looked down upon by many scholars, so the descendants of Maya people have been disregarded, as if their entire culture had disappeared after the 9th century. “I have a video of a Maya forest gardener saying that at school the teachers could not connect him with these grand centres [of the ancient Maya]. It’s as if there is a conspiracy against these people.” She adds that she asked another Maya forest gardener – who appears in the cover photo of The Maya Forest Garden – how long he had been working in the forest. “My family has been here since the beginning,” he replied proudly.
Ford and Nigh’s rigorous study even calls on evidence from Spanish warrior Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador. When he marched his 3,000 Mexican warriors and almost 100 Spanish horsemen through Maya lands in 1526, he found, according to a letter he wrote to Spain’s King Charles V, enough food left in well-ordered towns abandoned by the fleeing Maya to feed his huge entourage – further proof that the milpa system had not collapsed.
Combining history, archaeology, geography, plant ecology climatology and ethnography, The Maya Forest Garden links the present Maya people, and their agriculture, with their grandiose past. It may well bring about a shift of focus in historical approaches to the Maya civilization.
The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands is published by Left Coast Press, California.Learn more about Anabel Ford