Anthropology student looks to the ancient past to save the future

In current popular culture, the Mayans are best known for their “doomsday calendar,” a relic that supposedly marks the end of the world in December 2012.

However, one UALR anthropology student is participating in research among the ruins of an ancient city in Belize that suggests the Mayans believed humankind could enjoy an infinite existence. Jessica Perren is working with a team who is uncovering knowledge in the Mayan city of El Pilar that could potentially supply the world  with limitless food sources, save the forests and protect endangered species.

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In her field experience, Perren got the opportunity to work with Dr. Anabel Ford, founder of the Belize River Archeological Settlement Survey (BRASS) project. 

 “The traditional methods of gardening called ‘forest gardening’ that our team has found evident in the archaeology and ecology at the El Pilar site may provide insight for contemporary solutions to food security and sustainable farming,” said Perren, who received a fellowship from the UALR Anthropology Program to study in Belize. “The archeological research shows the complex interrelationships between cultural systems and their environment.”

The second most biodiverse place in the world next to the Amazon, the Maya Forest is a rich locale for researchers, because the human touch in its ecology is readily apparent. “According to my field director Dr. Anabel Ford, ninety percent of the plants in the Maya Forest in El Pilar are useful to humans, and that indicates considerable human influence,” said Perren.

First occupied around 1000 BCE, El Pilar sits on the Belize River on the border of Guatemala and Belize in Mesoamerica, a region of Mexico and Central America. It is the largest Mayan city in the region, with 25 plazas spanning more than 100 acres. “El pilar,” is Spanish for “watering basin.” The name has particular significance since an abundance of water was a rarity in the ancient world of the Mayans; most communities had to build enormous, underground reservoirs to store rainwater.

Through her field experience, Perren is working with the Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey (BRASS). Founded in the early 1980s by Ford, an archeology professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara, BRASS is an international group that works with modern forest gardeners to preserve El Pilar and its conservation secrets.  Preservation is a key focus of the group since rampant deforestation has compromised Mesoamerica’s biodiversity. Eighty percent of the area’s original habitat has been cleared or severely modified.

The practice of forest gardening, which involves a planting cycle called milpa, can save forests and wildlife while providing a large population with food for decades. Although actively farmed, forest gardens still retain the feral beauty so indicative of nature. “Dr. Ford contends that we often think of the rainforest as untouched by humans,” Perren said. “In reality, Dr. Ford says, it can be understood as the garden of the ancient Maya, the product of millennia of management by forest gardeners who cultivated the cycle of milpa.”

The milpa cycle evolves over 20 years and has four main stages.

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 Perren working in the forest garden weeding devil’s grass.

In the first stage, farmers clear and burn a section of the forest. Next, they plant maize, beans and squash and cultivate these crops under full sun for two to three years. Farmers encourage the weedier plants that beneath the maize to flourish, because these lower plants attract pests away from the garden, enrich the soil and trap moisture in the ground

Farmers plant quick-yielding trees — bananas, plantains and papaya — that will bear fruit in a year’s time in the second stage. Slower yielding trees such as avocado, mango and citrus are planted among the vegetables and will be ready for harvest in about five years. This ordinary garden is transforming in to a lush forest.

As the fruit trees mature and begin to produce, the third stage begins. The trees’ leaves create a thick canopy overhead that blocks sunrays and stunts undergrowth. The original crops of maize, beans and squash can no longer grow in such heavy shade. Forest gardeners then plant hardwoods such as cedar and mahogany that will take decades to mature.

The final stage of milpa is forest regeneration. Hardwoods tower over the fruit trees creating a higher, dense canopy, and the forest garden looks much like it did 20 years before the initial clearing. After the hardwoods mature, the forest gardeners harvest lumber for personal use or for sale. With the field cleared and ready for burning and replanting, the cycle of milpa starts all over again.

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 Perren and a colleague shell jicama seeds under the ancient forest canopy.

Despite their best conservation efforts, the Mayans overextended their human resources. In a 2009 interview with American Archaeology, Ford contended that Mayan leaders reassigned agricultural labor to the city’s infrastructure. The split labor force could not successfully maintain both the produce and structure systems for such a large, growing population, a problem that contributed to the end of El Pilar’s 1500-year civilization. Eventually, the city was abandoned and left for ruin.

Joining in efforts to recapture the city’s history has led Perren to work on a local educational project. “The majority of our work on the BRASS/El Pilar team is focused on our relationship with the non-profit Maya Forest Garden Network and their new Santa Familia primary school garden project,” said Perren. “We want to create a map of the forest garden for the children and a booklet that identifies the names of all the plants at the garden and their uses in Maya, Spanish, Creole, English and even the scientific names.”

Being in El Pilar is not all academic for Perren. Beyond the forest garden’s canopy are numerous ways to relax and experience the amenities of the local culture. “We go to the reeba, which is Creole for ‘river,’ and sit on fallen trees or jump from the ‘hammock’ bridge,” she said. “We went to Punta Gorda for the Cacao Festival. There we were able to try different kinds of fresh cacao – chocolate. We learned the traditional way how to make chocolate from bean to dessert plate.”

Reflecting on her choice of careers, Perren said she chose anthropology because of its holistic value. “Anthropology draws from subfields such as the physical, biological, linguistic, archeological, and cultural. All of these various pieces help us understand what it means to be human.”

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