A Cosmology of Conservation: Ancient Maya Environmentalism

Anthropologist Lisa J. Lucero shares a talk she recorded specially for ClimateCultures, drawing on her extensive archaeological research into how ancient Maya culture adapted to environmental change, and whose non-anthropocentric cosmology can help us rethink our own worldview.


1,190 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes + 42 minutes video


I have spent over 30 years studying the ancient Maya, and I have learned so much from the Maya, past and present. The book I am working on — Sacred Maya Forests, Ancient Environmentalism, and Our Future — shares what I have learned about the Maya world and the insights we can draw from that are relevant today.

Both the archaeological record and Maya foremen and field assistants (the guys), some of whom have worked with me for over 20 years, have taught me much about their way of life. I have seen their children grow, get married, and have children of their own. Even though I have been working in central Belize for decades, I still would never go into the jungle without the guys — Mother Nature only laughs at high tech toys. Nothing is better than their knowledge and experience. They not only help me teach students archaeology, but they also provide lots of the gear we need. They make ladders from trees for taking photos and for getting in and out of deep excavation pits. They also make unit stakes, screen racks and tables using branches and vines. To protect us and excavations from sun and rain, the guys use corozo leaf and logs to make palapas — open-sided dwellings with a thatched roof. Cleofo, a Mopan Maya and one of my foremen, uses bamboo to make tools to excavate human remains since they don’t scratch bones like metal tools do.

I only hope I get to go to Belize in May 2021 for a six-week field season. I have a three-year National Science Foundation Grant to fund a rescue archaeology project in recently cleared areas that have exposed hundreds of ancient Maya mounds/structures. There is so much more to learn.

A cosmology for sustainability

Together, the archaeological record and my Maya foremen and assistants provide the means to address major questions, the key ones being: how have the Maya been able to farm for 4,000 years without denuding the tropical landscape? What insights can we draw from the Maya that are relevant today? I begin addressing these questions in my presentation here, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’, which you can watch below.

The Classic Maya (c. 250-900 CE) are famous for their jungle cities with temples, palaces, tombs, ballcourts, exquisitely carved monuments, inscribed jades, and painted ceramics. Maya farmers, who supported this urban system, lived before, during, and after the emergence and demise of Maya kings between c. 200 BCE and 900 CE because of how they lived, which itself was informed by their non-anthropocentric worldview. This worldview, a cosmology of conservation, resulted in sustainable practices and was expressed in their daily life — rituals, farming, hunting, forest management, socializing, etc. As a case study, I highlight the pilgrimage destination of Cara Blanca, Belize.

Ego vs ecocentrism in Maya cosmology
Ego vs. Eco: the former resulted in the Anthropocene, the latter in sustainable practices. Generated by J. Gonzalez Cruz and L. J. Lucero, 2020

The traditional Maya worldview espouses that humans were one of many parts (animals, birds, trees, clouds, stone, earth, etc.) with mutual responsibilities to maintain the world they shared. Everything in Classic Maya society was animated and connected via souls. The Maya worked with nature, not against it. Nor did they attempt to control it. Such a view promoted biodiversity and conservation, allowing the Maya to feed more people in the pre-Columbian era than presently.

Adapting to a changing world

The Classic Maya lived in hundreds of cities, each with their own king, surrounded by rural farmsteads. This low-density agrarian urban system integrated water and agricultural systems, cities, farmsteads and communities, exchange networks, and resources. Rural farmers depended on city reservoirs during the annual five-month dry season — the agricultural downtime. Cities exerted a centripetal pull on rural Maya through markets, public ceremonies, and other large-scale public events — and the massive reservoirs. In turn, cities depended on the rural populace to fund the political economy in the form of labor, services (craft specialists, hunters, etc.), agricultural produce (e.g. maize, beans, manioc, squash, pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, etc.), and forest resources (wood, fuel, construction materials, medicinal plants, chert, game, fruit, etc.).

Showing an abandoned Mayan city, Tikal
Tikal – abandoned Mayan city
Photo: A. Kinkella

The Maya relied on rainfall to nourish their fields and replenish reservoirs during the annual rainy season between about mid-June to mid-January. The relatively little surface water due to the porous limestone bedrock, topography (e.g. entrenched rivers), and dispersed resources discouraged large-scale irrigation systems. The Maya began building reservoirs in cities c. 100 BCE. A growing population resulted in increasingly larger and more sophisticated reservoirs (e.g. dams, channels, filtration, etc.). Urban planning and layout increasingly became interlinked with reservoir systems, creating anthropogenic landscapes still visible today. Further, maintaining reservoir water quality would have been crucial to curtail the presence of waterborne parasites and diseases, such as hepatic schistosomiasis, and the build-up of noxious elements such as nitrogen. The Maya kept water clean by creating wetland biospheres through the use of certain surface and subsurface plants, as well as aquatic life.

A series of prolonged droughts struck between c. 800 and 930 CE. When reservoir levels began dropping, water quality worsened and water plants died, along with Maya kingship. Maya abandoned kings and cities, dispersing out of the interior southern lowlands in all directions. While this response was drastic, it was an adaptive strategy — one that worked, as evidenced by the over seven million Maya currently living in Central America and elsewhere.

Maya farmers survived because they relied on sustainable agricultural practices and forest management, both designed within the constructs of their worldview. The insights I have gained from the archaeological record and my Maya crew are a roadmap for a more sustainable future for us all. By the end of my presentation, I hope to convince you rethinking how we view and interact with the world is the first step for a sustainable future.

Click on the screenshot below to view Lisa’s presentation.

Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation
Click on image to link to Lisa’s ClimateCultures talk, ‘Ancient Maya Environmentalism: A Cosmology of Conservation’ https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/1_b0f1i6fj

Find out more

Lisa has shared some suggested reading from her research, for you to explore beyond her presentation. You can also read her earlier ClimateCultures post, Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings.

Larmon, Jean T., H. Gregory McDonald, Stanley Ambrose, Larisa R. G. DeSantis, and Lisa J. Lucero (2019): A Year in the Life of a Giant Ground Sloth During the Last Glacial Maximum in Belize. (Science Advances, 5:eaau1200).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2017): Ancient Maya Water Management, Droughts, and Urban Diaspora: Implications for the Present, pages 162-188 in Tropical Forest Conservation: Long-Term Processes of Human Evolution, Cultural Adaptations and Consumption Patterns, edited by Nuria Sanz, Rachel Christina Lewis, Jose Pulido Mata, and Chantal Connaughton (UNESCO, Mexico).

Lucero, Lisa J. (2018): A Cosmology of Conservation in the Ancient Maya World. (Journal of Anthropological Research. 74:327-359).

Lucero, Lisa J., and Jesann Gonzalez Cruz (2020): Reconceptualizing Urbanism: Insights from Maya Cosmology. (Frontiers in Sustainable Cities: Urban Resource Management, 2:1).

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
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Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings

Anthropologist Lisa Lucero researches the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management among the Classic Maya. Her most recent project explores collapsed groundwater sinkholes for evidence of ancient Maya offerings and climate and landscape histories.


1,210 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes 


I’m walking through the humid tropical jungles of Belize, a small country in Central America where many more people lived in the past than today. As usual, I am not alone. I never go into the jungle without my Maya field assistants. Even with a GPS unit and compass, one can get lost quickly. The jungle is their backyard, and they know everything about it; their knowledge of wild fruits, berries, medicinal plants, building materials — it’s truly astounding. They also help me conduct my archaeology research — understanding how the ancient Maya sustainably lived for thousands of years in the face of two intersecting challenges: seasonal drought, and periods of climate instability. Too much or not enough rain was a constant, either short- or long-term, and yet the Maya persevered in the southern Maya lowlands (SML) of present-day Belize, northern Guatemala, and southeastern Mexico.

Belize research crew shot, June 2017. (Lisa Lucero in purple shirt)
Belize research crew shot, June 2017. (Lisa Lucero in purple shirt).
Photo taken by project drone.

How did the Maya accomplish this? My research attempts to address this question because I know (not believe) that there are lessons we can learn from the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) that are relevant today. Let me explain.

As an archaeologist, my role is to explore how our ancestors lived. When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was interested in the emergence of hierarchical political systems. How did the earliest leaders get others to hand over the fruits of their labor? Many years and several publications later, what emerged was this crucial fact: climate change matters. No matter where or when in the world, climate change has played a significant role in shaping political histories. And it still does. I illustrate this point with a brief narrative on how Classic Maya kings arose and fell, and how the rest of the population adapted — and still do, as the millions of Maya currently living attest.

A fateful dependency

The setting. While the jungle may seem homogenous, it is not. The karstic topography gave rise to high biodiversity and a mosaic of dispersed resources, including fertile soils. This resulted in scattered farmsteads where the majority of Maya lived, as well as hundreds of urban centers with varying power based on agricultural surplus and water. While there was an abundance of rainfall during the annual seven-month rainy season, much of it percolated through the porous limestone bedrock. Surface water was thus relatively limited. Everything, thus, was rainfall dependent. Key factors so far: noticeable seasonality, high biodiversity, dispersed pockets of fertile soils, rainfall dependency.

Map of Maya area
Map of Maya area
Image generated by L J Lucero © 2018

It is this vital reliance on rainfall that is key to understanding the Classic Maya — their cosmology, agricultural schedules and strategies, livelihood, political power, and so on. The largest urban centers and concomitant support population and the most powerful kings emerged in areas with plentiful agricultural land, but without surface water such as lakes and rivers: Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol in Belize, to name a few powerhouses. But, you might be asking, if the majority of Maya lived scattered throughout the landscape, how did kings get farmers to contribute their labor, goods and services? Such efforts resulted in what most people think about when the topic of the Classic Maya comes up — urban centers with palaces, temples, ornate tombs, massive open plazas, ballcourts, elaborate hieroglyphs, inscribed stone monuments, beautifully painted ceramics, carved jade, shaped obsidian, etc. The answer: water. More specifically, artificial reservoir systems that increasingly became interwoven not only with center design, but with political power.

During the agricultural intensive periods of the rainy season, farmers worked in their fields. In the dry season in areas without much surface water, they congregated at centers for drinking water. In exchange for access to water, Maya commoners/farmers maintained royal buildings and lifestyle; they also participated in public events and ceremonies sponsored by kings, met up with friends, bartered goods at markets, and so on.

This system was in place for nearly a thousand years in the southern Maya lowlands, beginning c. 100 BCE until c. 850 CE. By 900 CE kings had disappeared. There are two parts to address how their political systems ‘collapsed’: path dependency; and several prolonged droughts. ‘Path dependency’ basically is putting all your eggs in one basket; as financial advisors tell us: diversify, diversify. Maya kings relied on reservoirs to draw in their subjects who, in turn, funded the political economy. Thus, if reservoirs failed, so too did kings.

Maya: the end of power

Analysis of annual rings of speleothems (stalactites or stalagmites) from caves in the Maya area shows that several multiyear droughts struck the Maya area between 800 and 900 CE. They impacted everyone. Reservoirs dried up and, eventually, people abandoned urban centers and kings. While a minority remained in the interior southern Maya lowlands, former home to the largest and most powerful centers, most emigrated in all directions in search of water and other resources to take care of their families. They migrated along rivers, lakes and coasts. Maritime trade flourished, as did northern lowland centers. The northern lowlands, with thinner soils, make up most of the Yucatán Peninsula, which also is at a lower elevation; that latter feature exposes lots of accessible water in the form of over 7,000 cenotes or collapsed sinkholes that are fed by groundwater.

The southern Maya lowland centers were abandoned for good; hundreds of them. Kings lost power because they relied on reservoirs as the linchpin to draw in subjects. When reservoir levels dropped in the face of the multiple prolonged droughts, kings failed in upholding their duty to provide dry season water. Their subjects left. Perhaps if the kings had diversified their political portfolio…

Aerial shot of Tikal, Guatemala
Aerial shot of Tikal, Guatemala.
Photo by L. J. Lucero © 2018

So, what are the lessons? First, we can’t continue with things as usual if we want to substantially address issues wrought by our changing climate; this includes not expecting new technology alone to save the day; and second, life-changing adaptations are called for — for the sakes of our families.


Find out more

More information on Lisa’s research publications is provided at her University of Illinois webpage, including open access journal articles such as a 2011 paper, Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management and another excellent article Lisa wrote on the University of Illinois anthropology blog, Exploring Maya life.

You can find out more about Lisa’s and colleagues’ research at the website of the Valley of Peace Archaeology project.

Lisa Lucero
Lisa Lucero
A professor of Anthropology focusing on how Maya and other societies dealt with climate change: the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management.
Read More