Molecular evidence for human population change associated with climate events in the Maya lowlands

B. Keenan, A. Imfeld, Kevin Johnston, Andy Breckenridge, Y. Gélinas, P.M.J. Douglas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The analysis of faecal stanols in lake sediment cores offers a novel opportunity to reconstruct human population change, assuming that variability in faecal stanol concentration is a reliable proxy for relative human populations. The ancient lowland Maya of Mesoamerica represents an important ancient society whose demographic dynamics in many locations remain uncertain. We apply the faecal stanol proxy to a sediment core retrieved from a lake adjacent to the archaeological site of Itzan, an ancient population centre in the southwestern Maya lowlands. The sedimentary faecal stanol record from Laguna Itzan implies substantial centennial- and millennial-scale changes in local human populations from 3300 cal years BP to the present. Variability in faecal stanol concentrations is broadly consistent with archaeological evidence for regional societal change across the Maya lowlands, but also implies an earlier presence of humans at this site than is currently indicated in the Itzan archaeological record. We find evidence for high-frequency variability in coprostanol concentrations during the Maya Preclassic period, which we infer represents centennial-scale shifts in settlement patterns associated with changes in agricultural and land use patterns. Given Preclassic-period faecal peak stanol concentrations, we observe lower-than-expected Classic-period faecal peak stanol concentrations, and these may partly be a result of either use of human waste for fertiliser or reduced soil erosion or both. Three periods of inferred population decline are associated with palaeoclimate evidence for a drying climate, specifically during the Terminal Classic (1220-1050 cal yr BP) and the Protoclassic 2 (1860-1670 cal yr BP), as well as the less well-studied drought between 3330 and 2900 cal yr BP during the Early to Middle Preclassic periods. An additional decline and hiatus in coprostanol input coincides with a period of anomalously wet climate in the Late Preclassic. These linkages suggest that climatic change and variability could have played a role in demographic change at multiple points in the evolution of Maya civilisation. Our work shows that faecal stanols are valuable proxies for past human population dynamics, and their relation to climatic change, in Mesoamerica. © 2021 The Author(s)
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106904
Number of pages12
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Apr 15 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Bjorn Sundby for his mentorship and stimulating discussions, Thi Hao Bui for lab assistance, and the staff at LacCore for assistance with sampling archived sediment cores. In addition we thank two anonymous reviewers for their feedback on the manuscript. Funding for this project came from the Eric Mountjoy Fellowship, McGill startup funds and an NSERC Discovery Grant 2017-03902 to PMJD.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s)


  • Central America
  • Erosion
  • Faecal stanols
  • Holocene
  • Itzan
  • Lake sediment
  • Palaeo-population
  • Social complexity

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