Landscape management at Guijarral, northwestern Belize

Paul James Hughbanks
Dept. of Anthropology, Tulane University
July, 2006


This dissertation describes the results of archaeological research at the ancient Maya site of Guijarral in northwestern Belize. Guijarral is a small community defined by natural boundaries on three sides---steep escarpment, bajo vegetation, and an entrenched drainage leading from escarpment to bajo. Within these boundaries, a variety of architectural types and landscape modifications were mapped and studied. Excavations were undertaken to identify the age of architecture, to understand something of the residents, and to learn the construction technique and age of artificial landscape modifications. The Guijarral community demonstrates that small communities were in many ways as complex as their larger neighbors. Guijarral occupies an environmental zone that is intermediate between the zones occupied by its nearest large neighbors, La Milpa and Blue Creek. Although Guijarral shows alteration of the landscape in the manner that is consistent with the upland hill and bajo environment surrounding La Milpa, its transitional location near the resources of the bajo as well as the water that drained from the Rio Bravo escarpment make it probable that Guijarral---like Blue Creek---did not fall under the political control of La Milpa. Like many ancient Maya communities, Guijarral reached its population apex during the Late Classic. The scattered evidence of Preclassic and Early Classic occupation of the area suggests that transformations of the landscape were known earlier and were in use---but not heavily. During the Late Classic, accompanying the appearance of new platform mounds on the landscape, numerous terraces and berms were also built to manipulate and manage the available surrounding landscape. The location and type of architectural units suggests that Guijarral filled largely according to principles of first occupancy---most desirable locations are taken first. But notable exceptions exist, and the location of the largest architectural unit suggests that other forces were at work. Study of the variety and placement of landscape modifications suggests that Guijarral was a community of interdependent families, but that a unifying force oversaw the coordination and cooperation of the entire community to maximize the productive potential of the entire inhabitable landscape.