Maya interactions with the natural world: Landscape transformation and ritual plant use at Copan, Honduras

Cameron L. McNeil
Dept. of Anthropology, City University of New York
May, 2006


This dissertation explores ancient Maya interactions with the natural world in the Copan Valley, Honduras, focusing in particular on landscape transformation and ritual plant use. Plants held a central role in the cosmology of the Copan Maya, with rulers and ancestors frequently depicted as trees, or maize plants. Despite this seeming glorification of nature, scholars have previously proposed that the Classic period (A.D. 400-900) Copan Maya dramatically deforested their environment causing massive erosion and undermining the ability of the polity to support a large population.

Analysis of pollen from a sediment core extracted by the author from a pond six kilometers from the Copan Acropolis has revealed a different story. Although evidence is found of two major deforestation episodes in the pre-Columbian period, the first occurred nearly three thousand years ago during the Early Preclassic, and the second approximately sixteen hundred years ago, during the Early Classic. In contradistinction to previous research, no indication of environmental overexploitation was found in the Late Classic. In fact, the stable balance between herbs and trees during the Late Classic may support a centralized control over the use of natural resources.

Investigation of the ecological history of the Copan polity was augmented with the analysis of botanical macroremains and pollen from structures found in the heart of the ancient Maya city. Sediment samples were taken for pollen analysis from the floors of forty Early Classic structures, as well as from vessels found in tombs and caches, to identify the plants that were selected from the natural world for use in ancient Maya rituals. The analysis of these samples revealed the presence of plants that were expected such as, cacao, maize and squash, and others that had not previously been identified as ritually important to the pre-Columbian Maya, such as cattails, coyol palms and Bourreria flowers.