A long-term decrease in the persistence of soil carbon caused by ancient Maya land use

Peter M.J. Douglas, Mark Pagani, Timothy I. Eglinton, Mark Brenner, Jason H. Curtis, Andy Breckenridge, Kevin Johnston

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


The long-term effects of deforestation on tropical forest soil carbon reservoirs are important for estimating the consequences of land use on the global carbon cycle, but are poorly understood. The Maya Lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala provide a unique opportunity to assess this question, given the widespread deforestation by the ancient Maya that began ~4,000 years ago. Here, we compare radiocarbon ages of plant waxes and macrofossils in sediment cores from three lakes in the Maya Lowlands to record past changes in the mean soil transit time of plant waxes (MTTwax). MTTwax indicates the average age of plant waxes that are transported from soils to lake sediments, and comparison of radiocarbon data from soils and lake sediments within the same catchment indicates that MTTwax reflects the age of carbon in deep soils. All three sediment cores showed a decrease in MTTwax, ranging from 2,300 to 800 years, over the past 3,500 years. This decrease in MTTwax, indicating shorter storage times for carbon in lake catchment soils, is associated with evidence for ancient Maya deforestation. MTTwax never recovered to pre-deforestation values, despite subsequent reforestation, implying that current tropical deforestation will have long-lasting effects on soil carbon sinks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-649
Number of pages5
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This paper is dedicated to M. Pagani. We thank A. McNichol and L. Xu for facilitating many of the compound-specific radiocarbon measurements. Funding for this work was provided, in part, by a US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (to P.M.J.D.) and by a grant from the Italian Ministry of the Environment (to M.P.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

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