Nixtun-Ch'ich' and its Environmental Impact: Sedimentological and Archaeological Correlates in a Core from Lake Peten Itza in the Southern Maya Lowlands, Guatemala


Sedimentological information obtained from lake sediment cores has long been used to show how the Maya impacted their environment. Although general trends are usually observed, direct correlation of construction, deforestation, and abandonment of cities is hindered by poor chronological correlation between sedimentary and archaeological data. We report on findings from a 515-cm core covering the last ~7000 years of sedimentation that displays remarkable correlation between the two. The core was extracted from Lake Petén Itzá (Department of El Petén, northern Guatemala) immediately adjacent to Nixtun-Ch'ich', a long-lived (ca. 1300 BCE—1750 CE) southern lowland Maya site. Chronological precision for the core was achieved by an age-depth model based on Bayesian statistics and corroborated by dates from archaeological excavations. This model, based on six radiocarbon dates and integrated with physical (magnetic susceptibility) properties and scanning XRF analysis of elemental (Si, Fe, and Ti; also Sr and Ca) constituents, permits exceptionally precise correlations with independently dated constructional activity at Nixtun-Ch'ich'. Erosion resulting from the Middle Preclassic (800 to 500 BCE) creation of the site's atypical urban gridded landscape is prominently registered in the core. Other sediment changes at the end of the Late Preclassic period (ca. 50—200 CE) may be drought-related and reflect local expression of a "Late Preclassic Maya collapse," suggesting new avenues for archaeological exploration. This study highlights the potential of lake sediments, continuously recording human activities in the catchment, as faithful registers of subtleties unrecovered archaeologically. Detailed analyses of sediments deposited close to sites' drainage pathways may reveal intricate correlations such as those observed here, and shed light on cultural activities and environmental and living conditions undetected in the archaeological record.


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Research Center/Lab(s)

Center for Research in Energy and Environment (CREE)

Keywords and Phrases

Lake Peten Itza; Magnetic susceptibility; Paleolimnology; Preclassic; Southern Maya lowlands; XRF scanning

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Document Type

Article - Journal

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© 2019 Elsevier Ltd, All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Aug 2019