A new study shows hows pre-Columbian Maya food systems can inspire contemporary urban food security. The Maya agriculture was highly diverse and spatially complex within each city, all the way down to the neighbourhood and household levels. Archer10/Flickr


Urban food security

Re-discovering the Maya way

How Maya civilization can inspire contemporary urban food security

Story highlights

  • Study investigates how pre-Columbian Maya food systems can inspire contemporary urban food security
  • Researchers warn that we are experiencing a "global generational amnesia" about how to grow food more locally
  • Despite two millennia of urban change the basic building block of Maya cities remained the urban farmstead

In mainstream media as well as in popular science Maya civilization is commonly made synonymous with doomsday scenarios and collapse, despite the fact that Maya culture is one of the most enduring and dynamic. Clearly, there is much more to learn from this pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization about long-term social-ecological interactions than simply the roads that eventually led to ruin.

In a study recently published in Ecological Economics, Centre researcher Stephan Barthel and co-author Christian Isendahl at Uppsala University investigate how pre-Columbian Maya food systems can inspire contemporary urban food security.

Request article

Global generational amnesia
Barthel and Isendahl show how urban gardens, agriculture and water management contributed to long-term food security, and in particular the importance of social memory to uphold such practices.

The idea of drawing on experiences from a civilization with its heyday more than a millennium ago may appear far-fetched, but in a time when skills related to local food and water management are rapidly vanishing, there are things to be learned from the Maya.

Barthel and Isendahl warn that we are experiencing a "global generational amnesia" about how to grow food more locally. Furthermore, agricultural production is not "the antithesis of the city", but often an integrated urban activity that contribute to the resilience of cities.

"The historical and archaeological record from the Maya civilization offers important insights on urban food systems"

Stephan Barthel, lead author

Despite two millennia of urban growth, decline and reorganization, the basic building block of Maya cities remained the urban farmstead. These are found consistently throughout the Maya civilization irrespective of city sizes.

The Maya agriculture was highly diverse and spatially complex regionally, sub-regionally, and within each city, all the way down to the neighbourhood and household levels.

Constantinople another inspiration
Barthel and Isendahl draw further comparisons with old Constantinople. They point out the city's capacity to produce significant amounts of foodstuffs within the urban settlement itself as a complement to food trade with distant regions.

Read more about the resilience of Constantinople here

"In both Maya cities and Constantinople, access to proximate and diverse food resources as well as systems that harbor autonomous food production at lower levels of social organization were two key principles to long-term urban resilience. The similarity patterns in these widely dissimilar historical, environmental, political and economic settings offer important insights about contemporary Western urban food security" Barthel explains.

"In a time where 75 % of the global population is projected to be urban within decades, we can deal with the 'food production amnesia' by learning and getting inspired by ancient and in many aspects resilient civilisations such as the Maya," Barthel concludes.

Request article

References

Citation

Barthel, S. and Isendahl, C. (2012). Urban Gardens, Agricultures and Waters: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics-in press. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.06.018

Stephan Barthel's research revolves around aspects in relation to management of urban ecosystem services and resilience. Focus is on social as well as ecological features that influence management practices.