Boletín de la Sociedad Geológica Mexicana

Volumen 71, núm. 1, 2019, p. 93- 119



Ancient Maya use of Hidden Soilscapes in the Yalahau Wetlands, northern Quintana Roo, Mexico

Daniel Leonard1, Sergey Sedov2, Elizabeth Solleiro-Rebolledo2, Scott L. Fedick3, Jaime Diaz2


1HDR, Inc., San Diego, 92123, California, U.S.A.

2Instituto de Geología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, 04510, CDMX, Mexico.

3Department of Anthropology, University of California Riverside, Riverside, 92521, California, USA, and Department of Anthropology, Rhode Island College, Providence, 02908, Rhode Island, U.S.A.

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The Yalahau region of northern Quintana Roo, Mexico, contains abundant freshwater wetlands and a history of Maya occupation that spans nearly 3000 years. The highest regional population levels occurred during the Late Preclassic period, from ca. 100 BC to AD 350/450. The Maya constructed rock alignments crossing wetland swales, and these have been hypothesized as features used to trap soil and water for production of food and useful biological resources such as periphyton. Paleoenvironmental studies from a wetland in the eastern part of the region suggested that occupation of the Yalahau region, and manipulation of the wetlands, corresponded to a period when the water table was lower than in modern times, creating wetland ecosystems that were most productive for cultivation. This paper presents results that apply this model at the regional scale (in wetlands in other parts of the region). Thirty short soil cores were collected from 12 wetlands across the region. For this project, 5 cores from 4 wetlands were selected for analyses including micromorphology and radiocarbon dating. Thin sections studied under petrographic microscope were used to identify the various types of features present in the core sequences including carbonates, organic matter, shell, pyrite, gypsum, and pore space. In each core, it was possible to distinguish an upper unit dominated by biogenic-micritic carbonate and a lower unit characterized by a variety of unique soil features such as sparitic calcite crystals, pyrite, gypsum, and gleyic properties. Based on this, it is suggested that while modern soil forming processes are fairly uniform across the region and controlled by regular annual flooding (~7 months of >1m deep flooding each year), in the past (Preclassic period), flooding was less regular and wetland environments were more swampy and varied. Furthermore, it is suggested that the Preclassic depressions encountered by the Maya were a prime agricultural resource that allowed the region to flourish during the Late Preclassic period. However, as flooding became more regular at the end of the Preclassic period, the region was abandoned, only to be reoccupied in the Late Postclassic when wetlands were exploited for aquatic resources rather than for agriculture.

Keywords: Maya, wetland agriculture, micromorphology, paleoenvironmental change, pedogenesis, geoarchaeology.