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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2023
  2. Large, low-density settlements of the tropical world disintegrated during the first and second millennia of the CE. This phenomenon, which occurred in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica, is strongly associated with climate variability and extensive landscape transformation. These profound social transformations in the tropical world have been popularized as “collapse,” yet archaeological evidence suggests a more complex and nuanced story characterized by persistence, adaptation, and resilience at the local and regional scales. The resulting tension between ideas of climate-driven collapse and evidence for diverse social responses challenges our understanding of long-term resilience and vulnerability to environmental change in the global tropics. Here, we compare the archetypal urban collapse of the Maya, in modern Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, during the 8th to 11th centuries CE, and the Khmer in modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam during the 14th to 15th centuries CE. We argue that the social response to environmental stress is spatially and temporally heterogenous, reflecting the generation of large-scale landesque capital surrounding the urban cores. Divergences between vulnerable urban elite and apparently resilient dispersed agricultural settlements sit uncomfortably with simplistic notions of social collapse and raise important questions for humanity as we move deeper into the Anthropocene.

  3. We report on a large area of ancient Maya wetland field systems in Belize, Central America, based on airborne lidar survey coupled with multiple proxies and radiocarbon dates that reveal ancient field uses and chronology. The lidar survey indicated four main areas of wetland complexes, including the Birds of Paradise wetland field complex that is five times larger than earlier remote and ground survey had indicated, and revealed a previously unknown wetland field complex that is even larger. The field systems date mainly to the Maya Late and Terminal Classic (∼1,400–1,000 y ago), but with evidence from as early as the Late Preclassic (∼1,800 y ago) and as late as the Early Postclassic (∼900 y ago). Previous study showed that these were polycultural systems that grew typical ancient Maya crops including maize, arrowroot, squash, avocado, and other fruits and harvested fauna. The wetland fields were active at a time of population expansion, landscape alteration, and droughts and could have been adaptations to all of these major shifts in Maya civilization. These wetland-farming systems add to the evidence for early and extensive human impacts on the global tropics. Broader evidence suggests a wide distribution of wetland agroecosystems across the Maya Lowlandsmore »and Americas, and we hypothesize the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane from burning, preparing, and maintaining these field systems contributed to the Early Anthropocene.« less