As we approach the winter solstice and the end of one long count and the beginning of another, our understanding of the Mayan world is rapidly being transformed by new knowledge.

The traditional Mayan narrative in western literature is perhaps best exemplified by the writings of Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter, who ascribe the collapse of the Classic Period to an over-exploitation of resources, and in particular, a deforestation of the lowlands that exacerbated climate swings, leading to extreme drought, fire and famine. Some now-familiar scenes in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto were of lime-quarry workers, dusted head-to-toe in white powder, slaking lime to make renders for buildings and pyramids. These images resonate with our stereotypes of tone-deaf ruling classes directing their work-slaves to perform catastrophically civilization-destructive activity.

There is another story of Mesoamerica that is emerging through the work of biologists, botanists, and ethno-agronomists exploring and attempting to replicate the ancient systems that produced traditional foods. One example now familiar to permaculturists can be seen the chinampas of Xochlimilco, near modern-day Mexico City, which combined urban waste-disposal, canal dredging, and plant and animal production from both aquatic and terrestrial horticultural complexes. The Aztec’s elegantly interconnected system, which was not confined to just that society or to the tropics, produces more food per hectare than any system discovered before or since, and it does it by cooperating with nature.


Two Mayan examples can be seen in the large-scale experiments in Belize of archaeologist Anabel Ford and cacao-farmer Christopher Nesbitt. Ford’s farm, El Pilar, straddles the border between northern Belize and Guatemala in the Petén. Nesbitt’s is located in southern Belize, in the Maya Mountains. Both occupy flanks of semi-buried and overgrown pyramid cities from the Classic Period around 1,100–1,000 years ago.

We have described the Maya Mountain Research Farm here before and suffice it to say the best way to get a full picture is to go there and experience it. We offer a permaculture design certificate course there every spring. This year our course is being preceded by a tour of development projects in Southern Belize and followed by an advanced edible forest design course.

A stelle from Yaxchilan showing tribute being paid by three wise men (or one
lieutenant and two prisoners, actually) to Itzamnaaj B’alam III
(literally: Shield of the Sky Diety Jaguar the third).

Built on the ruins of the midland city of Uxbantun, part of the archeological complex of Luubantun (best known for the discovery of the crystal skull by the teenage daughter of archaeologist F.A. Mitchell-Hedges in 1926), MMRF is a tree-based agricultural system that resembles the structure, complexity and interconnectivity of the traditional Maya, providing sustainability services such as erosion control, air purification, soil formation, water retention and wildlife habitat.

In 1978, While living in Guatemala and guiding her archaeology graduate students from UC Santa Barbara in field work, Anabel Ford mapped a 30-km transect between the Petén sites of Tikal and Yaxhá. In the process, she could not fail to ignore the ongoing cultivation by present Maya residents of many of the same crops found in the archaeological record, and in some cases the same identical cacao trees, regrown from stump cultures, and kept in production more than 1000 years. This cultivation pattern she described as “forest islands,” and she immediately grasped that it was precisely this style of agriculture that enabled the Maya to not only build successive monumental civilizations, but to still inhabit Central America in large numbers today.

In 1983, she discovered and later mapped the ancient city of El Pilar. In 1993, after conducting a settlement survey and excavations, she launched a multidisciplinary program to understand the culture of El Pilar by replicating its agriculture. In a 2011 article for Popular Archeology, Ford described that agriculture in this way:

The Maya milpa cycle sequences from a closed canopy forest to an open field. When cleared, it is dominated by annual crops that transform into a managed orchard garden, and then back to a closed canopy forest in a continuous circuit. Contrary to European agricultural systems developed around the same period, these fields are never abandoned, even when they are forested. Thus, it is more accurate to think of the milpa cycle as a rotation of annuals with succeeding stages of forest perennials during which all phases receive careful human management.


Extensive evidence exists on the management of forest resources, the flora and fauna, and the subtleties of Maya ecological knowledge. Traditional practices of forest gardening support a model of long-term, sustainable management of natural resources by the Maya. We see the Maya as managers rather than as destroyers, and this is an essential step in understanding how to conserve this and other threatened tropical ecosystems today. Rather than using the Maya model as one of destructive behavior – a “failed society” – their responsible interaction with their environment can provide us with a model of global sustainability. —

Ford’s working experiments at El Pilar, and also what Chris Nesbitt is doing at MMRF, are at the leading edge of what is coming to be called “action archaeology.” Says Jeremy Sabloff, former president of the Society for American Archaeology, “The idea that archaeology can play a critical role in the world today is a rising trend — and a very exciting one.” The role shift is from academic scholar or forensic technician to community activist and trainer. What action archaeology brings to campaigns to eradicate poverty, stop resource wars and reverse climate change is the recovered knowledge of what sustainability actually looks like when it is practiced for several thousand years.

One of the main things it looks like is a forest.


Albert Bates has been Director of the Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology since 1984 and the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm in Tennessee since 1994, where he has taught sustainable design, natural building, permaculture and restoration ecology to students from more than 50 countries. He was one of the first to write about climate problems 30 years ago. His latest book is The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change.