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ASU archaeologist on the importance of waterscapes in ancient Maya culture

Aerial view of a landscape with a large lake and vegetation and smaller bodies of water around it.

The split Mirador sustenance-water mountain of origin on an Aztán-like island (top center) with canals, fish reservoirs, vegetation and fields around lakes at Mensabak, Chiapas. Photo courtesy Joel Palka/Mensabak Archaeological Project

August 15, 2023

Joel Palka has spent his career learning about culture, history and religion in Mexico and Central America. His latest research emphasizes the importance of human-made, or domesticated, water management in ancient MayaThe term "Maya" refers to a group of people and their identity, history and culture, while the term "Mayan" refers to their language. civilizations.

Recently, the associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change had an article on the topic, titled Ancestral Maya domesticated waterscapes, ecological aquaculture, and integrated subsistence,” published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.

Palka says aquaculture, like fish farming, was just as important in ancient Maya civilization as other crops and farming, if not more. 

“I have been researching the importance of fish farming and the use of water resources (think turtles, ducks, reeds, etc.) for human consumption in ancient Mexico and Central America, rather than just agriculture,” Palka said.

“Indigenous people have utilized a variety of plants and animals in their daily lives, and have not just focused on agriculture, which is more of a Western society perspective. Most archaeological research focuses on the rise and benefits of agriculture, and that’s unfortunate since many societies actually have focused on integrated food sources and grocery lists that also involved gathering, household gardening, hunting and fishing.”

ASU News spoke with Palka about his recent article.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why is aquaculture important in the ancient Maya culture? 

Answer: The interesting thing is that ecological aquaculture was religiously important for Indigenous people like Maya societies. Waterscapes with fish and reeds were considered important origin places for people, and water was just as important as land in religious beliefs. People are not only part of the land but the water too, (both of) which have divine ancestral forces in them. I guess many Christians have similar beliefs, like the Garden of Eden, which may be linked to Mesopotamian ecological aquaculture along desert rivers.

Q: Do scientists know what type of fish and water plants the ancient Maya cultivated and used? 

A: While we only know of a few species now, environmental DNA studies will help us find others from the domesticated waterways. Fish that do well in these enhanced ecosystems include cichlids (the tilapia family), catfish, shrimps and turtles, in addition to reeds, palms and dyewoods and annual plants like tomatoes, corn and chile, also thrive. People in the past moved fish populations, like large river cichlids, and plants, such as palms, around a lot. 

ASU Associate Professor Joel Palka in an outdoor setting surrounded by greenery.

Joel Palka, associate professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Photo courtesy Joel Palka

Q: Why would the ancient Maya civilizations trap turtles? What were they used for? 

A: Turtles are a good source of protein and they are tough, resist temperature changes and eat different things, so they can be easily kept alive until they make it into the cooking pot. Their shells are used as bowls and for musical instruments like drums and rasps. People still eat turtles in Chiapas today (like they do in New Orleans). They are also religiously significant. The land and mountains were created on the backs of ancestral turtles, so they are just as mythologically important as fish.

Q: What are "raised fields," as mentioned in your article? Why are they important and do researchers know how the Maya made them? 

A: The term "raised field" is a misnomer; think of them instead as “fish tank gardens.” People pile up dirt and swamp muck to form a raised field to grow plants on it near water. Yet, the canals and ponds around them become successful fish and turtle farms, in addition to places where ducks and herons can thrive among more extensive reeds and palms. Ancient Maya also wanted the fish excrement in the pond muck to fertilize their crops. And they harvested corn and beans together with fish and reeds at the same time.

Q: Are canals that the Mayas used throughout history still in use today? Are there any cities in America that use similar systems?

A: I realized the excavated canals and raised fields made 2,000 years ago around the lakeshores at my research site at Mensabak, Chiapas, Mexico, were part of the domesticated waterscape after going fishing there with Lacandon Maya. So the human-modified waterways are still resilient systems and excellent food storage areas. Many cities near floodplains and lakes in the Americas utilized ecological aquaculture (plants and fish), like Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico, Cahokia in Illinois and Chan Chan on the Peruvian coast.

Q: Would waterscapes ever work in places as hot and dry as Arizona? Or do we need closer freshwater sources? 

A: Domesticated waterscapes and landscapes, or ecological aquaculture systems, work like this: You amplify the movement and pooling of water in more canals and reservoirs; you grow plants on the water’s edge to encourage the growth of fish and animal populations in the natural environment — plus evaporation is reduced; you use the sediments to grow important plants, and you harvest the fish, turtles and birds. Arizona has sufficient moving fresh water for these enhanced, domesticated waterscapes. But people need to utilize the food and material resources from the system. Similar ecological aquaculture conditions can be seen at the Phoenix Zoo and large parks, which are such plant and fish oases, so they could be expanded. Growing trees and crops along canals and connecting them to reservoirs would be a great start.

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