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

Nature Geosciencevolume 11pages645649 (2018) | Download Citation


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.

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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.).

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  1. Deceased: Mark Pagani.


  1. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Peter M. J. Douglas
    •  & Mark Pagani
  2. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    • Peter M. J. Douglas
  3. Geological Institute, ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Timothy I. Eglinton
  4. Department of Geological Sciences and Land Use and Environmental Change Institute, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

    • Mark Brenner
    •  & Jason H. Curtis
  5. Natural Sciences Department, University of Wisconsin–Superior, Superior, WI, USA

    • Andy Breckenridge
  6. Independent Scholar, Columbus, OH, USA

    • Kevin Johnston


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P.M.J.D. and M.P. designed the study. M.B., J.H.C., A.B. and K.J. collected, described and sampled the sediment cores. M.P. collected the soil samples. P.M.J.D. performed the geochemical analyses, under the guidance of T.I.E. and M.P. P.M.J.D. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript, with input from all authors.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Peter M. J. Douglas.

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