1st Edition

The Maya Forest Garden Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands

By Anabel Ford, Ronald Nigh Copyright 2015
    260 Pages
    by Routledge

    260 Pages
    by Routledge

    The conventional wisdom says that the devolution of Classic Maya civilization occurred because its population grew too large and dense to be supported by primitive neotropical farming methods, resulting in debilitating famines and internecine struggles. Using research on contemporary Maya farming techniques and important new archaeological research, Ford and Nigh refute this Malthusian explanation of events in ancient Central America and posit a radical alternative theory. The authors-show that ancient Maya farmers developed ingenious, sustainable woodland techniques to cultivate numerous food plants (including the staple maize);-examine both contemporary tropical farming techniques and the archaeological record (particularly regarding climate) to reach their conclusions;-make the argument that these ancient techniques, still in use today, can support significant populations over long periods of time.

    Introduction Prosperity across Centuries; Chapter 1 The Context of the Maya Forest; Chapter 2 Dwelling in the Maya Forest: The High-Performance Milpa; Chapter 3 Environmental Change and the Historical Ecology of the Maya Forest; Chapter 4 Maya Land Use, the Milpa, and Population in the Late Classic Period; Chapter 5 The Forested Landscape of the Maya; Chapter 6 Maya Restoration Agriculture as Conservation for the Twenty-first Century;


    Anabel Ford is director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and President of the nonprofit organization Exploring Solutions Past: The Maya Forest Alliance. She has done extensive research on patterns of Maya settlement and landscape ecology, and is recognized for the archaeological discovery of the ancient Maya city center of El Pilar, on the border of Belize and Guatemala., Ronald Nigh is a professor at Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) in Chiapas, Mexico. He is the author of numerous studies and articles on agricultural, ecological, and environmental issues of concern to indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. He is also director of Dana, a non-government organization that coordinates an experimental garden in San Cristobal de Las Casas for training and support of young Maya farmers involved in agroecological transition.

    "The Maya Forest Garden is an excellent addition to the New Frontiers in Historical Ecology series. Ford and Nigh’s book presents readers a thorough, accessible, and holistic anthropological introduction to the nature of Maya agricultural practices, a review of past and present ecological and conservation conditions, and a convincing theory for adopting an interdisciplinary approach to studying this unique relationship between a people and its environment. This work should be of interest to Maya scholars; students in the fields of cultural ecology, sustainability, and archaeology; and others interested in the dynamics of sustainable ecological practices of complex societies."

    - Jeffrey L. Brewer, University of Cincinnati, USA, in American Anthropologist

    "Ford and Nigh bring decades of field research to this book and draw on ethnography, agroecology, ethno- and paleobotany, archaeology, historical climate data, and ethnohistory.  Even today, Maya forest gardeners cultivate sustainably but are threatened by Euro-informed models of agriculture that view tropical lowlands as suitable mainly for destructive pasturing.  Scholars interested in tropical swiddeners and Mesoamericans in particular should read this discussion. Summing Up: Highly recommended."

    - A. E. Adams, Central Connecticut State University, CHOICE

    "The book is a timely multidisciplinary exploration of not only the rich historical ecology of the Maya forest garden, but also of Maya culture, history and knowledge – and the risk of loosing all of it. The value of explorations like the one offered by this study need to be — for the future of any form of sustainable humanity and in my modest opinion — continued."

    - Alessandro Questa, Anthropology Book Forun (American Anthropological Association)

    "An excellent contribution to the world literature on sustainable, indigenous land management.  After rigorous paleo-botanical, archaeological and ecological research and on the ground consultation with existing practitioners, the authors conclude that the widely assumed cause of the collapse of the Mayan civilization due to deforestation and environmental degradation is not true... I’d recommend Ford and Nigh’s book to anyone interested in permaculture and forest gardens."

    - Michael Pilarski, Friends Of The Trees Society

    "A groundbreaking new book co-authored by a UC Santa Barbara researcher... asserts the Maya not only survived their presumed apocalypse, they thrive today using farming techniques that are thousands of years old. The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands by UCSB’s Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh demonstrates that the Maya milpa system is sustainable, sophisticated and highly productive."

    - Jim Logan, The UCSB Current

    "Ford’s book, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands, co-authored with Ronald Nigh, a professor at the Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Chiapas, Mexico, published in June, is the result of 44 years of excavation and research into El Pilar’s domestic architecture, gardens and traditional forest crops."

    - Joan Koerper, Inlandia Literary Journeys

    "We have been reading The Maya Forest Garden by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. It tells the tale of a civilization that weathered many climate changes, foreign conquests and failed attempts at cultural genocide. That civilization is still there today, after 8,000 years."

    - Albert Bates, Resilience

    "For years, archaeologist Anabel Ford has been arguing the case that the ancient Maya knew well how to manage their tropical forest environment to their advantage, eventually sustaining large populations even beyond the time when many archaeologists suggest the Maya declined and abandoned their iconic Classic period pyramidal and temple constructions and monumental inscriptions during the 8th and 9th centuries CE. She challenges the popular theories long held by many scholars that the Maya declined because of overpopulation and deforestation from increased agricultural production, perhaps aggravated by draught and climate change."

    - Popular Archaeology

    "In 2001, I traveled to the Belize-Guatemala border to report on UCSB archaeologist Anabel Ford’s many discoveries at El Pilar, the Maya monument complex she uncovered in 1983. That’s where she developed revolutionary theories that threatened to rock the academic world, namely that the Maya did not “disappear” due to an overpopulation cataclysm, but merely dwindled with time."

    - Matt Kettmann, Santa Barbara Independent  

    "The book makes use of a wide range of data sources, including texts, ethnographic and archaeological research, pollen cores and a variety of climate proxies. The first two chapters after the introduction provide a useful  summary of the archaeology, history and historical ecology of the Maya region. These sections are clearly written and well illustrated, and will mean that the book is accessible to those not familiar with recent research in Mesoamerica."

    - Antiquity 92 361 (2018): 267–274

    "the book fulfills a longstanding need to reevaluate the ecological relationship of the Maya people and the forest which they have managed and maintained over millennia. The book will be of interest to archaeologists and anthropologists, as well as conservation biologists, paleoclimatologists, and those concerned with development strategies in the tropics."

    - Scott L. Fedick, University of California, Riverside, USA, in Latin American Antiquity