Remote Sensing And Modeling Environmental Legacies Across An Ancient Maya Landscape

Mesoamerican rainforests are remnants of one the largest natural reforestation events of the last millennium. Abandoned settlement and agricultural engineering features of the Maya, that lay largely hidden beneath the dense tropical forest canopy, are being revealed with the use of airborne LiDAR remote sensing. Around the hills and valleys of Caracol, the foremost archaeological site in Belize, lies an extensive network of terracing that once supported a population of >100,000. The anthropogenic manipulation of the landscape has been shown to affect contemporary tree species composition and general forest structure (i.e., height, biomass, canopy gap distribution). This environmental legacy has cascading effects on ecosystem services provided by the forest such as providing habitat for its rich arboreal fauna and sequestering carbon. Using the LiDAR-derived digital elevation model (DEM), we were able to estimate the influence of terracing on hydrological flows and erosion forces, which may have been the fundamental cause of the ecological consequences. Though simulated soil wetness indices were somewhat higher on steep terraced slopes, sediment transport indices of terraced areas were lower regardless of slope. This suggests that the primary function of the Maya terracing was soil conservation and may be the driver of the present-day forest stand differences.