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We often envision the New World before the arrival of the Europeans as a land of pristine natural beauty and undisturbed environments. However, David Lentz offers an alternative view by detailing the impact of native cultures on these ecosystems prior to their contact with Europeans. Drawing on a wide range of experts from the fields of paleoclimatology, historical ecology, paleontology, botany, geology, conservation science, and resource management, this book unlocks the secret of how the Western Hemisphere's indigenous inhabitants influenced and transformed their natural environment. A rare combination of collaborators uncovers the changes that took place in North America, Mexico, Central America, the Andes, and Amazonia. Each section of the book has been comprehensively arranged so that a botanical description of the natural vegetation of the region is coupled with a set of case studies outlining local human influences. From modifications of vegetation, to changes in soil, wildlife, microclimate, hydrology, and the land surface itself, this collection addresses one of the great issues of our time: the human modification of the earth.
The primary theoretical question addressed in this book focuses on the lingering concern of how the ancient Maya in the northern Petén Basin were able to sustain large populations in the midst of a tropical forest environment during the Late Classic period. This book asks how agricultural intensification was achieved and how essential resources, such as water and forest products, were managed in both upland areas and seasonal wetlands, or bajos. All of these activities were essential components of an initially sustainable land use strategy that eventually failed to meet the demands of an escalating population. This spiraling disconnect with sound ecological principles undoubtedly contributed to the Maya collapse. The book's findings provide insights that broaden the understanding of the rise of social complexity - the expansion of the political economy, specifically - and, in general terms, the trajectory of cultural evolution of the ancient Maya civilization.
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