In the years since Anabel Ford encountered the Maya city of El Pilar between Belize and Guatemala in 1983, the research anthropologist and director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at UC Santa Barbara has dedicated her career to documenting and preserving the ancient site. Now, a new grant of US$289,806 from the National Science Foundation will allow Ford and her research team to conduct research into how the Maya built and sustained dense settlements in the tropical forest. Ford’s team is made up of archaeologists, botanists, geographers, palynologists and soil scientists.
“We are asking what geographic characteristics are influencing ancient Maya settlements,” said Ford, whose team includes co-principal investigator Keith Clarke, professor in the Department of Geography at UCSB.
“The name El Pilar was on maps that I found even without mention to the plazas and temples. And like Columbus ‘discovering’ America, it was always there; I just helped to give it value in the archeological world,” Ford said. “That is another reason I use the word monument, not ruins. It commands respect, and gives the local community agency and values their observations and experience at El Pilar,” she said. Before Ford’s research at El Pilar, it was widely believed the Maya disappeared as a result of overpopulation and environmental degradation. But in her work at the site, she has demonstrated that the Maya were in fact skilled managers of the forest.
“If you look for fertility and cultivatable land, if it is by hand that is a whole different view. Also, the fact that the milpa cycle is key. Agroforestry studies show the value of the intimate poly-cultural farm view is so different than the monocrop conventional farming typical in the U.S.”
– Anabel Ford
The grant will let Ford finish mapping El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna; which covers 5,000 acres, or 2,000 hectares. Remotely sensed Lidar imagery, along with data from the various disciplines on-site, will be used by Clarke to build models of agricultural land sustainability and human environmental impacts. This new grant for advanced research on El Pilar will also include a settlement survey; survey to cover archaeology, soil for fertility, vegetation for the environment, topography for the landscape base and the modeling for geography. Additionally, the grant will bring additional soil, vegetation, and pollen data from nearby Mexico to compare, for new perspectives.
The project will also provide opportunities for students, professional colleagues and volunteers; students from the United States, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico to engage in the research, according to Ford.
“Investigators will expand local networks and partnerships by coordinating activities with community-based organizations, NGOs and governmental agencies; this is to promote greater scientific knowledge of the prehistory and ecology of the Maya lowlands,” she said. “New data generated by this project will be available to all partners to aid in planning projects for education and development.”
Dr. Ford added that the COVID-19 pandemic has created new hurdles for research. “Although it isn’t practical to do most field work right now, the team is still very much working”. However for the time being, the team will focus on the modeling component of the research.