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Contact: Tom Robinette
tom.robinette@uc.edu
513-556-1825
University of Cincinnati

UC research on Maya village uncovers 'invisible' crops, unexpected agriculture

The research on the well-preserved plant remains found in a Maya village that was destroyed by a volcano's fury will be presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

IMAGE: David Lentz, University of Cincinnati, at bottom, joins workers on site at the excavation of Cerén.

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The University of Cincinnati's mastery of ancient Maya mysteries continues with new research from professor of biological sciences David Lentz.

UC faculty have been involved in multiple research projects concerning ancient Maya culture for more than a decade. This latest Maya study from Lentz focuses on Cerén, a farming village that was smothered under several meters of volcanic ash in the late sixth century.

Lentz will present his research, "The Lost World of the Zapotitan Valley: Cerén and its Paleoecological Context," at the 78th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, held April 3-7 in Honolulu. More than 3,000 scientists from around the world attend the event to learn about research covering a broad range of topics and time periods.

THE SCIENTIFIC GIFTS OF VOLCANIC CATACLYSM

Cerén, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Joya de Cerén, was discovered in El Salvador in the late 1970s when a governmental construction project unearthed what turned out to be ancient ceramic pottery and other clay structures. The initial archaeological excavation was directed by Payson Sheets, a faculty member at the University of Colorado and a friend of Lentz.

Cerén is sometimes called "the Pompeii of Central America," and much like that doomed ancient Roman city, the wreckage of Cerén was remarkably well preserved by its volcanic burial shroud. So that bad news for the Cerén villagers became good news for archaeologists centuries later.

"What this meant for me, is this site had all these plant remains lying on the ground," Lentz says. "Not only do we find these plant remains well preserved, but we find them where the people left them more than a thousand years ago, and that is really extraordinary."

IMAGE: This image shows what is thought to be a Maya shaman's house at Cerén.

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Lentz specializes in paleoethnobotany and oftentimes in his work – including at other Maya sites – he's left to interpret complex meaning from splinters of charred wood and hard nut fragments. The Mayas' tropical environment, which isn't conducive to preserving plant remains, doesn't make things any easier.

But the situation was different at Cerén. The village's sudden and complete ruin sealed it under layers of preservative ash. So Lentz's research there is still challenging but in an unfamiliar way.

"It was tricky because we kept encountering things we'd never encountered before at a Maya site," Lentz says. "They were just invisible because of the lack of preservation."

GARDENS, CROPS AND OTHER SURPRISES

A few examples of what Lentz and his team have discovered at Cerén:

IMAGE: This image shows ridged and furrowed land, believed to be a maize field.

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LEARNING FROM ANCIENT LANDSCAPES

From these new discoveries come many lessons, a lot of them ecological. Lentz has studied how the Mayas effectively implemented systems of agriculture and arboriculture. He is intrigued by what made these methods successful, considering the Maya population was much denser than what exists on the modern landscape.

His findings at Cerén give him new pieces to plug into the Maya puzzle. Furthermore, they help us understand how humankind affects the natural world.

"Cerén is regarded internationally as one of the treasures of the world," Lentz says. "What's been found there gives you a real idea of what things were like in the past and how humans have modified things. I think what we're learning there is revolutionizing our concept of the ancient past in Mesoamerica."

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Additional contributors to Lentz's research paper were students Christine Hoffer (The Ohio State University) and Angela Hood (University of Cincinnati). Funding for the research was provided by multiple National Science Foundation grants.



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