Secrets in the Soil

Scientists study the soil to uncover mysteries about an ancient civilization.

Mar 01, 2013 | By TFK Staff


More than 1,000 years ago, the Maya built a thriving civilization in the jungles of Central America and southern Mexico. They built grand palaces, temples and pyramids, and created detailed art.

Tikal (tee-kahl), one of the largest Mayan cities, had as many as 60,000 people and 3,000 buildings. But by the year 900, the Maya had abandoned these cities. Why they left remains a mystery. Soil scientist Richard Terry is helping to solve that mystery and others. "For each question we are able to answer, there will be more questions," he says.


Since 1997, Terry has been studying the places where the Maya grew crops in northern Guatemala. Chemicals in the soil have helped Terry and other scientists learn how the Maya lived and fed themselves.

Terry and his team have been digging into the soils of Tikal. They have found evidence that the Maya had great success growing maize, or corn, in lowland areas surrounding swamps. "The soil is deep enough there to provide a good root system, and the soil is less likely to erode," Terry told TFK.

The scientists discovered that the Maya also farmed on steeper ground, where soil was more likely to erode over time. The loss of soil would have made it difficult for the Maya to continue to grow food. That, suggests Terry, may have caused the Maya to move.

These findings show how soil scientists can help archaeologists learn about the past. Terry says that other clues may disappear, but "the soil chemistry is still there."

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