Oxford Long-Term Ecology Lab

Long-Term Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation, and Environmental Stewardship Technologies

Following the Spanish conquest of the territory that is now modern Guatemala (1524–1541 CE), the anthropogenic use of land use was radically transformed to support livestock husbandry, agriculture, large-scale timber extraction, mining, and new settlements. These changes are frequently documented in historical accounts and official records; however, these are scant and are often incomplete. In the absence of chronicled accounts or direct measures of land-use change, palaeoenvironmental data can be used to interpret the human impact following the Spanish Conquest.

In our recent publication: “A palynological perspective on the impacts of European contact: Historic deforestation, ranching and agriculture surrounding the Cuchumatanes Highlands, Guatemala” we explore the evidence for land-use change from the point of European contact (1524 C.E.) through to the present day, using a combination of environmental proxy data (e.g., pollen and charcoal collected from a sediment core extracted from Cenote Kail), historical accounts (e.g., ecclesiastical records), satellite observations, and geospatial modelling.

Since European contact in 1524 CE, anthropogenic activities in the Cuchumatanes highlands have dramatically changed to include pastoral activities, timber extraction, mining, and the building of new settlements. Evidence from Cenote Kail indicates that land clearance for the establishment of new settlements around the Cuchumatanes Highlands began from at least 1550 CE and by 1650–1675 CE most hard-wood taxa (Liquidambar and Quercus) had been removed from the landscape. Hard-wood taxa were removed as a result of land clearing for new settlements beginning in 1537 CE under a regime known as ‘congregación’ or ‘reducción,’ which involved the forced removal of indigenous peoples from their villages into colonial settlements. According to historical records, these settlements were required to have a church and administrative buildings, which necessitated the use of large amounts of timber.

It is likely that the increasing pressures of pastoral activities also damaged the reproductive success of trees such as Oak through the consumption of acorns by cattle and sheep. Bovids, ovine and porcine (cattle, sheep, and pigs) can digest fibrous content and plant lignin, meaning that predation of seeds such as acorns may have increased with pastoral expansions.

During the early 17th century Spanish settlers began to expand into the countryside. In 1699 CE and 1701 CE, the villages surrounding the city of Antigua were forbidden from grazing or cultivating the surrounding hillsides by royal decree to attempt to preserve the damaged soils. These edicts are suggested to be the first conservation laws to be implemented anywhere in Latin America.

To enable the recovery of these forests to pre-Columbian levels, the careful management of timber extraction, animal husbandry, and settlement growth is required. The recovery of these forests is expected to take between 80-200 years.


William J. Harvey

Associate Researcher, University of Oxford

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