Environmental DNA reveals arboreal cityscapes at the Ancient Maya Center of Tikal

David L. Lentz, Trinity L. Hamilton, Nicholas P. Dunning, Eric J. Tepe, Vernon L. Scarborough, Stephanie A. Meyers, Liwy Grazioso, Alison A. Weiss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Tikal, a major city of the ancient Maya world, has been the focus of archaeological research for over a century, yet the interactions between the Maya and the surrounding Neotropical forests remain largely enigmatic. This study aimed to help fill that void by using a powerful new technology, environmental DNA analysis, that enabled us to characterize the site core vegetation growing in association with the artificial reservoirs that provided the city water supply. Because the area has no permanent water sources, such as lakes or rivers, these reservoirs were key to the survival of the city, especially during the population expansion of the Classic period (250–850 CE). In the absence of specific evidence, the nature of the vegetation surrounding the reservoirs has been the subject of scientific hypotheses and artistic renderings for decades. To address these hypotheses we captured homologous sequences of vascular plant DNA extracted from reservoir sediments by using a targeted enrichment approach involving 120-bp genetic probes. Our samples encompassed the time before, during and after the occupation of Tikal (1000 BCE–900 CE). Results indicate that the banks of the ancient reservoirs were primarily fringed with native tropical forest vegetation rather than domesticated species during the Maya occupation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12725
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The U.S. National Science Foundation (BCS-0810118 [D.L.L.] and BCS-1642547 [D.L.L.]), the Wenner-Gren Foundation (7799 [D.L.L.]), the Alphawood Foundation (V.L.S.) and the University of Cincinnati Intellectual Property Fund (A.A.W.) provided financial support for this research. We thank Eric Ponciano, Juan Carlos Pérez Calderón and Mónica Urquizú of the Institute of Anthropology and History of Guatemala (IDAEH) and, Armando Guillén, Elmer Tun and Fredy Sosa of Tikal National Park for their support during our field research. Domitela Setina allowed us to collect plant and soil samples from her home garden in Uaxactun. Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli, a principle of the PACUNAM lidar initiative, provided lidar imagery of Tikal. RAPiD Genomics LLC designed the genetic probes, conducted the gene sequencing and initiated the bioinformatics processing for this study at their laboratory facilities in Gainesville, FL. Chris Carr, Mauricio Díaz, Thomas Ruhl and Linnea Lentz provided technical and artistic advice. We also thank Dr. Annette Rowe for allowing access to her lab equipment. This project was conducted in accordance with all laws and regulations of Guatemala with permits granted to project co-directors David Lentz and Liwy Grazioso by the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, the Dirección General del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural, the Instituto de Antropología e Historia and the Departamento de Monumentos Prehispanicos y Coloniales (Convenio Numero 6-2009). Plant specimens and soil samples were transported into the United States under the auspices of permits awarded by the US Department of Agriculture to David Lentz (#PDEP-09-00052) and Nicholas Dunning (#S-69494), respectively. All regulations proscribed in the CITES treaty and other international agreements were complied with in full.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Historical Article


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