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Cultural and Climatic History of Cobá, a Lowland Maya City in Quintana Roo, Mexico1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Barbara W. Leyden
Department of Geology, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, 33620
Mark Brenner
Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, University of Florida, 7922 NW 71st Street, Gainesville, Florida, 32611
Bruce H. Dahlin
Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Howard University, Washington, DC, 20059


Lake Cobá, within the archaeological site of Cobá, provides evidence bearing on lowland Maya development. Palynological and geochemical data record multidecadal precipitation cycles from a 8.80-m, >8370-yr lake-sediment sequence terminating on bedrock. Late Classic sedimentation rates are rapid, but an anthropogenically derived colluvium layer is lacking. Initial vegetation was medium semi-deciduous and swamp forest. Forest clearance began 1650 B.C. (Early Preclassic) and maize first occurred at 850 B.C. (Middle Preclassic). Lakeside milpas existed until A.D. 720 (Late Classic) and then were moved from the city center as urbanization intensified and Lake Cobá was diked as a reservoir. Cobá was at most briefly vacated during the Classic Collapse and was abandoned after A.D. 1240, although some habitation persisted. The paleoecological record matches the archaeological history for Cobá, but pervasive disturbance muted the climatic signal, as the Late Classic drought is barely evident. The question whether economic trees were maintained within the city is unresolved. Maize cultivation allowed the Maya to develop a complex society and support a large population, but dependence on maize was ultimately doomed by variable rainfall. Precipitation in extreme years was insufficient to support crops, while native vegetation was not directly affected by drought that devastated Maya agriculture.

Research Article
University of Washington

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Journal Series Number R-05830 of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station.


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