Archaeologists have learned that the Maya were innovative farmers. In the swampy lowland areas of the Yucatán, seasonal flooding, low soil fertility, and high water tables all make farming a challenge. The Maya cultivated swampy land using a system of raised fields and canals that was low maintenance, all natural, extremely productive, and, most important, sustainable.
Raised fields worked like this: Maya farmers dug canals through the swamps, piling the excess soil onto the inner fields, which raised them two to four feet (0.6 to 1.2 meters) and reduced waterlogging. The canals served the dual purpose of providing irrigation and natural fertilizer. A few times each season the Maya harvested water plants from the canals and spread them on the fields to further enrich the soil. The irrigation and fertilizing resulted in an extended growing season for crops grown on the raised fields.
Archaeologists previously thought that raised fields alone produced more than enough food for the local community, giving people a comfortable surplus for trade. However, new research combined with the real-time experiences of local farmers is giving us a better understanding of agriculture and ecology in the region. To support a growing population and economy during the rise of Maya civilization, raised fields were probably integrated with the dry-field system more familiar to us.
Today, agricultural researchers and farmers are learning from the ancient Maya. In areas of Central and South America impoverished by poor soils and thin crops, researchers are teaming up with local farming communities and governments to develop ways to make small-scale subsistence farming profitable, thereby enriching the local economies. The raised-field system that worked so well 1,500 years ago often proves to be the best way to farm the land today.
For more information, see the website of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.
—Gabrielle E. Montanez