Socio-environmental dynamics in Belize

Labour Exchange Group planting maize

A long term perspective in the North Vaca Plateau, west-central Belize

Subsistence farmer in Belize

This interdisciplinary archaeological, paleo-environmental, and ethnographic project investigates the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of the north Vaca Plateau of west-central Belize.

Sean Downey’s role on the project is to collect ethnographic and ethnohistorical data from local subsistence farmers regarding their ability to cope with climate stress. He will assess the subregion’s sensitivity during extreme climate patterns including droughts by interviewing farmers about agriculture strategies and related environmental knowledge.

Questions that are being explored include the following:

  • identifying the aspects of subsistence farming are most susceptible to drought
  • identifying the minimum gross annual precipitation needed for successful crops
  • identifying the importance of the timing of the rainy-season onset and
  • exploring how the social organization of agricultural labor change during times of environmental stress

The ethnographic and ethnohistoric fieldwork is intended to provide insight into how subsistence farmers intimately familiar with study subregion cope with climate stress. It is acknowledged that the utility of ethnographic analogy for direct archaeological interpretation is typically limited when Colonial-era contact casts doubt on cultural continuity from ancient to modern. But there is a unique opportunity in this project to link the study subregion’s “prehistory” with its “history” – a feat rarely possible in Maya archaeology – because the paleoclimatological record provided by the Macal Chasm stalagmite overlaps with the ethnohistorical database which will be assembled.

The second component of Sean’s work involves compiling a database of historical climate data information for the subregion for the past 100 years and collaborating with Andrew Bevan to develop a historical-period climate reconstruction for the subregion which can be used to validate the speleothem analysis. Ultimately, it is hoped to be able to correlate the Macal Chasm climate sequence with the historical precipitation sequence, thereby connecting the subregion’s environmental past to its present and allowing tests of the Macal Chasm sequence’s accuracy.

Overall, it is believed that our understanding the long-term socio-environmental dynamics of the sub-region’s pre-history will be greatly enhanced by an ethnographic/ethnohistoric study of socio-environmental dynamics during most recent century.


Project Leaders:

Project Partners:

  • George Brook (Department of Geography, University of Georgia)
  • James Conolly (Department of Anthropology, Trent University)
  • Fred J. Longstaffe (Department of Earth Sciences, University of Western Ontario)
  • Holley Moyes (Department of Anthropology, Wichita State University)
  • Jason S. Polk (Department of Geography and Geology, Western Kentucky University)
  • Philip P. Reeder (Department of Geography, University of South Florida)
  • Philip Van Beynen (Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of South Florida)
  • James W. Webster (U.S. EPA)
  • Jocelyn Williams (Department of Anthropology, Trent University)


Further information:

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