Rainforests of the Maya

The tropical forests of Central America are peppered with the ancient relics of the Maya: a civilization whose monumental architecture and advanced society continues to mystify us.

But who were the Maya, how did they shape the environment around them and did they, in fact, disappear?

The Kern team explores the rainforests of Central America to document a realm of incredible biodiversity. These jungles, cloud forests and underwater caverns still hold important clues about the Maya civilization and their lasting impact on the environment around them.

Rainforests of the Maya

The Maya


Dark, mysterious and exploding with life, rainforests have captured the imaginations of countless explorers. The jungle is ever-changing, ever-growing. If allowed, it can swallow entire cities.

In the early nineteenth century, the rainforests of Central America were vast and uncharted. There were rumors, however, of massive stone monuments peeking through the landscape.

In 1839, American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Fredrick Catherwood set out to investigate these rumors. What they found were the remnants of an incredibly sophisticated, ancient civilization. Stephen’s thoughtful written accounts, paired with Catherwood’s detailed illustrations, would shake the foundations of archaeology.

Ancient History

Today, much more is known about the history and culture of the Maya civilization. The more we uncover, the more we understand the close link between the people and their environment. Tropical jungles are persistent. As new monuments are excavated, rainforest life continues. We were reminded of this when we stumbled upon this scene in the rubble of a temple at Kabah. Like history, nature can be sublime, and brutal. The iguana, it seems, has passed to the underworld. The boa, however, has consumed enough food to keep it energized for many days.

To understand the Maya we need to go farther back in time, about 15,000 years, towards the end of the last ice age. Before sea-levels rose, nomadic people from Asia walked across a narrow bridge of land that connected their continent with North America. These were the first Native Americans, and they spread rapidly.

The environment was much different. There were no rainforests in the Yucatan Peninsula during the late Pleistocene because the climate was dry. Before they even knew how to build pyramids, these first Americans began shaping the landscape by selecting those plants that were most useful to them. Access to water was essential for agriculture and consumption.

“The Yucatan is basically a platform of soluble limestone. This area is unique in that there are few above ground rivers. However, it’s riddled with caves called “cenotes.” I like to think of these cenotes as geologic “time-capsules,” and today, we’re going to explore a few.”

Diving through these cave systems in Mexico’s “Maya Riviera,” we see intricate formations: stalactites, stalagmites, columns. This indicates that during the last ice age, many of these cenotes were dry caves; a powerful reminder of how different this area would have looked 15 thousand years ago.

“The cenotes are now full of life-giving water, many if not all connected by underground rivers. In fact the Sac-Actun cave system is believed to be the largest underwater cave system in the world. For the Maya, the cenote was also the gateway to the underworld. Some are littered with sacrificial remains.”

This source of fresh water made life possible in the Yucatan and many Maya cities were built around cenotes. But they could only guess what lay hidden beneath the surface. In some, we encounter haloclines: layers of water where salt and fresh mix. In others, we dive through clouds of poisonous hydrogen sulfide. Through holes in the ceiling, magical shafts of light pierce the darkness. It is impossible to experience the grandeur of these caverns without thinking about the myths and legends of the Maya.

The Maya

Over thousands of years, the domestication of plants like corn, beans and squash transformed the ancestors of the Maya from hunter-gatherers to agricultural pioneers. It was in the Yucatan peninsula and northern Central America that these farmers came together to form the most sophisticated civilization of the New World. They developed complex hieroglyphic writing, introduced the concept of zero, and designed the world’s most accurate calendar.

A privileged class of kings, priests and scribes, ruled over the people. The kings were regarded as gods. With a big supply of limestone under their feet, the peasants built pyramids and temples to honor their god-kings, and, also, to bury them.

In life, kings were dressed in jaguar skins and the feathers of the resplendent quetzal. In death, their faces were covered with masks made from precious jade. These signs of culture and art started well before the Christian era, coming to full expression during the Maya classic period from 250 to 900 AD.

The Maya imagined many gods based on nature, such as the god of rain, of the sun and even a monkey god. They imagined these gods coming to earth on the branches of the giant ceba tree.

“Maya builders had no metal tools for cutting limestone, no wheeled carts, and no horses or oxen. They used physics, rolling huge blocks of limestone on logs and leveraging them into place.  It was human strength and ingenuity at its best that constructed monumental structures like this, Nohoch Mul pyramid in the ancient city of Coba. At 137 feet, it is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.” Live narration at Coba

Like the Romans, they invented a type of arch and a process for making cement by heating crushed limestone. The arch enabled them to create interior spaces in their stone temples. The cement enabled them to stucco their temples and then paint them. We found traces of stucco and paint in deep crevices. Most has washed away with the centuries.

The magnificent city of Palenque looks like this today after its partial restoration. Its 4-story tower is different from any other structure in the Maya world. Astonishingly, Palenque probably looked close to this when it was occupied. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of Maya cities flourished and faded centuries before Columbus even arrived.

In the late classic period, shortly before the Maya civilization declined, artistic styles became highly decorative. Some Puuc-style temples, like this one at Kabah, were covered in mosaic masks of the rain god Chaac. In the rear of the building two warriors overlook the plaza. In the nunnery quadrangle at Uxmal a human head emerges from the jaws of a rattlesnake. At Labna a large arch is richly decorated. At Sayil rounded columns were introduced to support a multistoried building, a feature oddly reminiscent of the ancient Greeks.

The Rio Bec style took construction to another extreme: At Xpujil a temple had towers that served no purpose other than decoration. At Chicanna one enters the temple through a monster mouth, trimmed out with the eyes and teeth of a jaguar.

These striking examples of artistry in the late classic period led many archaeologists to assume that the Maya were a peace-loving people devoted to the finer things of life. Then a series of murals was discovered at a site called Bonampak. We see the king and his nobles presented with the captives of war – their tortured fingertips dripping blood. In another mural the queen makes a blood sacrifice to the gods by running a thorny rope through her tongue. A stone lintel at Yaxchilan shows another queen doing the same thing.

War between city-states was common. Tikal, in present day Guatemala, ruled much of the Maya world until Calakmul made alliances with other cities and defeated Tikal in 572 AD.  Maybe the massive pyramids were built for intimidation more than anything else. Tall hieroglyphic monuments called stelae speak mostly of military victory.

 “Nearly every Maya city had at least one ball court. The idea was to knock a rubber ball through a hoop. The ball game was often featured in Maya art, but there’s lot’s we don’t know about the rules. We do know the game wasn’t strictly fun and was a representation of military conflict. Many times captives were forced to play, only to be sacrificed at the end. Even in sport, the Maya kept death close at hand.”

The Disappearance

By 1,500 AD, a once great civilization had all but disappeared. Large-scale construction ceased, political structures disintegrated, and the people melted into the forest. Theories about the reasons for the Maya collapse abound. Perhaps it was climate change and drought…a pandemic. Many experts have suggested that the Maya over-exploited the landscape, or maybe political upheaval was the culprit. It was likely a combination of factors but the truth is, we may never fully understand.

Most of what remained, the stone remnants of one of the world’s most impressive ancient civilizations, was eventually reclaimed by the jungle.

The Rainforest

Biodiversity/ The Lungs of the Earth

The rainforest can seem like a foreboding place. For the Maya, it was bountiful. Tropical forests are known for their incredible biodiversity, and the jungles of Central America are some of the richest on the planet.

Climate is critical. As the name suggests, rainforests require lots of precipitation. Plants take up water through their roots, and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By harnessing the energy of the sun, carbon is synthesized into sugars which helps the plant grow. The byproducts? Oxygen, and water vapor. Ironically, this process, which is so dependent on climate, creates thick clouds that help to keep the climate of the rainforest stable. Rainforests, in many ways, are the “lungs of the earth.”

The cycle of life moves at break-neck speed in the tropical forest. Competition for sunlight, for water and nutrients is fierce, and this leads to great specialization and diversity. The variety of plants is spectacular, each occupying a special niche in the community. With frequent, often torrential rains, soil nutrients can be quickly washed away. Roots of large trees have adapted to spread wide and shallow to capture as much nutrient from the thin topsoil as possible. They also stabilize the soils, and where deforestation occurs, soil erosion and mudslides follow.

Compared to the canopy, the understory is dark and sparse. Most of the action is in the treetops where plants compete to grab any patch of available light. Large rainforest trees become laden with orchids, bromeliads and vines, each species employing different tricks to reach the sun and capture water and nutrients.

Animal Biodiversity

With such a variety of plants, the producers of this ecosystem, comes an equally impressive variety of animals, or consumers. In terms of sheer numbers, insects rule the rainforest.

There are hundreds of species of ants. They have tiny brains, but have adapted to form highly complex social structures. Each individual has a job, and they are always working.

Canopy leaves appear as if they have been blasted with a scatter gun…the painstaking work of millions of leaf-cutter ants: the arborists of the rainforest. Winding trails of these banner-waving ants can snake for hundreds of feet through the jungle. The spoils are carried into massive underground colonies, sometimes 25 feet deep. The trimmings themselves are not eaten, but are used to cultivate fungus which feeds the ants and their queen. The workers are divided into castes, with smaller workers riding shot-gun on the leaves for extra security.

Pity the leaf-cutter that tries to harvest the leaves of the bullhorn acacia tree. The tree has a secret weapon. This fang-shaped thorn does not contain venom, but an equally potent defender. The hollow thorns shelter the tiny bullhorn ant and in turn, the ant will protect its home at all cost. Sometimes bailing out is the only option.

In addition to providing a home, the acacia tree produces energy-rich food packets for the ants. It’s a convenient, mutualistic relationship in which both organisms benefit. In the rainforest, teaming up can be an effective strategy.

On the forest floor, army ants are on the war-path. Huge, nomadic colonies will sweep an area clean, subduing and dismembering anything in their paths. They are ruthless, and indiscriminate. Insects fleeing from this marauding horde, fall prey to wood creepers. These so called “ant birds” take advantage of the chaos for an easy meal. The birds benefit from the relationship, the ants couldn’t care less: a great example of commensalism. You’ve got to be quick, and light on your feet if you’re going to dance with the army ants.

The humid rainforest environment supports a stunning diversity of reptiles and amphibians.

Poison dart frogs advertise their toxicity with bold patterns and neon colors. The toxin in their skin comes from the ants which make up much of their diet.

On leaves overhanging a mountain stream we find gelatinous globs of goo. On closer inspection, they are wriggling with tadpoles. Their father, a glass frog, stays close to keep a watchful eye on his offspring.

The red-eyed tree frog is a feast for the eyes. Despite its exuberant colorations, it is not poisonous. Its best defense? Fantastic acrobatic abilities.

Good thing he’s got sticky feet, because he doesn’t always stick the landing.


Though dark, the jungle is full of color. Flowers market their goods, sugar-rich nectar, to equally colorful pollinators. In exchange for a meal, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds assist in the reproduction of countless rainforest plants.

Hummingbirds can be as brilliant as the flowers they sip from. In order to drink without damaging the flower, hummingbirds hover; beating their wings as many as 80 times per second. That’s the power of a high-sugar diet. Hummingbirds are also the only group of birds that can fly….backwards.

Once pollinated, flowers often develop into nutritious fruits; a feast for many other birds. Because of the tropical climate, hundreds of plant species flower and fruit year-round. For a mated pair of scarlet macaws, there is always a guava or palm tree heavy with fruit.

Monkeys are agile enough to reach fruits high up in Central America’s productive forest canopy. Their long tails are important for balance. But spider monkeys have multi-purpose tails. Essentially an extra grasping limb, the tail is just the tool for life among the trees. Monkeys with prehensile tails, are only found in the New World.

The ominous growl of the howler monkey echoes through these jungles. Its howl is one of the loudest vocalizations in the animal kingdom, and perhaps one reason why monkeys were worshiped by the Maya. In fact the Monkey God was a common theme in Maya life, often depicted in intricate works of art. But despite its terrifying howl, this species is strictly vegetarian, preferring tender buds and newly sprouted leaves.

Real friends are the ones that will check you for ticks. Monkeys, like these white faced capuchins are not only highly intelligent, but very social; often roaming the forest in large troops. When monkeys aren’t feeding themselves, they might be tending young, hanging out, or just plain monkeying around. The Maya, as we do, must have seen a reflection of themselves.

Seeds from the fruits that are eaten fall to the forest floor. This ensures that plant varieties are evenly spread throughout the forest. The agouti is especially good at seed dispersal.  Seeds scattered among the leaf-litter are a good sign that agoutis have been busy.

One thing jungles have plenty of are leaves.

The sparse understory is kept clear by terrestrial leaf-eaters. Large herbivores like deer were an important source of protein for the Maya.

The largest land mammal in Central America dines primarily on leaves. The Baird’s tapir will sometimes forage during the day, though it is more active at night. The heat of the day is reserved for more relaxing pursuits, like butt scratching. Napping is another favorite. Mud holes are preferred napping spots, this one claimed by a mother and calf. Mom’s warm body provides plenty of real estate for basking basilisks.

Tapirs love water, and we were lucky to film a young male crossing an estuarine river to get to prime feeding grounds. Males can be territorial, and this youngster was soon chased back into the water by a larger male in hot pursuit.

The tapir was hunted by the Maya and at up to 800 pounds, provided lots of protein. The tough hide was used to create shields for Maya warriors, who undoubtedly respected the tapir’s often aggressive personality. Today, due to poaching and habitat loss, the mighty tapir is extremely rare.


Carnivores reap the ultimate rewards of the rainforest’s bounty. Cats are silent hunters and most, like this margay, wear spots: the perfect camouflage pattern for the dappled sunlight of the jungle.

The undisputed king of the rainforest is the Jaguar. For the Maya, it represented untamed power. Kings took names like Shield Jaguar, or Jaguar Paw and wore their pelts as a symbol of dominance. Occasionally, Jaguars were sacrificed; the ultimate gift to the gods.

Today and Tomorrow

Today neither the Jaguar nor the ancient Maya rule this territory and the rainforests themselves are shrinking. Tropical forests around the world are in trouble but in Central America, the problem is dire. El Salvador has lost more than 80% of its jungles. Sprawling development, illegal logging and cash crops such as palm-oil plantations are some of the main threats. The result is fragmentation of important wildlife corridors and an overall loss of biodiversity. We are also beginning to understand the effects of climate change and the destruction of these forests is particularly worrisome. We know that through photosynthesis, rainforests are responsible for trapping massive amounts of carbon. The by-products they produce; oxygen and water vapor, are essential to life on this planet.

But the jungles have not completely disappeared, and despite what many history books have taught, neither have the Maya.

“One of the things I realized when we were going to school, they used to tell us that the Maya used to live in this country and they disappeared. So we were not able to connect ourselves with the various ancient monuments. So one day I met a fellow from the U.S.. He was looking at an ancient monument in my farm, he said ‘I wonder where these Maya went to.’ I said, they didn’t go anywhere, what do you mean? So I told him, you’re talking to one of them.”


Many have claimed that the ancient Maya degraded their land resulting in an environmental collapse. This is not likely, says archaeologist Anabel Ford who in 1983 found the ancient city of El Pilar in Western Belize. Around the crumbled remains, Dr. Ford observed that 90% of the trees were species that were useful to the Maya in some way. Twenty species were particularly dominant:


“We were able to come up with these twenty dominant plants that were all useful, all important for construction, for medicines, for thatching, for production, for fruit, for gum, even for the birds, even for the animals ….  are counted among important uses that the Maya had. / As we started considering the nature and identifying the trees, we realized that this was a forest garden and that the Maya were gardening the forest. / And now we’re looking at a relic. It’s a legacy of probably eight millennia of selection.”


Another breakthrough came when Dr. Ford saw how contemporary Maya farmers were growing their crops. It was not in the western style of large fields of single plants like corn or beans, but rather in small mixed-crop plots called milpas. Furthermore, the Maya were using a sophisticated and sustainable cycle of planting that left most of their land in forest.


The cycle starts with strategic slashing and burning, and the farmers do not plow the soil. Instead, they make a hole with a sharpened stick into which they drop a few seeds. To some, this may seem unusual.


“But, in fact, it retains water, building fertility, the biodiversity of the soil. It has the worms and the charcoal. All those things are right there, and they’re kept there. Alfonso Tzul says very poignantly, ‘I’ve never seen a milpa where there is erosion, and seen a ploughed field that doesn’t.’”


Victor Chambor, a Lacandone Maya farmer from Chiapas, Mexico, also has vast knowledge refined through the countless generations of his ancestors. He is particularly proud of a large stretch of rainforest near his milpa. He knows every plant in the forest and what things he can use there.


Four years into the milpa cycle, seeds drifting in from the surrounding forest have sprouted into young trees in the milpa of master gardener Narcisso Torres. He keeps the ones that are useful to him and eliminates the others.


Narciso continues to sew his annual crop plants for another four years. By then, the young forest trees are beginning to cast too much shade for corn and beans, so he initiates the cycle elsewhere by burning another plot of forest. The new forest, with its many products, will be as important to Narciso as his milpa. It will grow and mature for the final 12 years of the cycle, and will become a place for abundant wildlife.


“There’s this image of slash and burn being really destructive and the image that comes from our European production that to get more product you have to clear more land. That means that all land is cleared. The milpa is a cycle. / At any one time, you’ll have a minimum of two thirds of the land in forest.”


Dr. Ford has concluded that if the Maya used the highly sustainable milpa cycle in ancient times, it is not likely they deforested their land or degraded their environment. Instead, we need to look to other social, economic and military causes for the collapse of the great cities. The Maya farmers lived on; and with neither pyramids to build nor kings to support, they continued to perfect their high-yield milpa cycle. The milpa cycle may be their greatest achievement and their most important gift to the future of mankind. But in this modern era where agriculture is increasingly mechanized, will this tremendous knowledge be lost?


“There are fewer and fewer of these master Maya forest gardeners – like Victor, like Narciso, like Alfonso. These people carry a knowledge that’s an 8,000 year experimental practice. Can you imagine having something like that? And to be disregarding them, to be not including them in a sustainable future when they can really step up and help, and they’re ready to help. We need them, and if these people are not here for us, we can never find out the kinds of things they know that have been this long experiment. The sustainability of the Maya forest garden is unparalleled.”


Resplendent Quetzal

With an uncertain future, there are remnants of the past that we must cling to. We decided to search for a creature that in many ways, symbolized the glory of the ancient Maya and in my opinion, today embodies the wild soul of Central America’s remaining jungles. To find this animal, we had to travel a bit south of the traditional Maya lands, to the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Here we can find some of the last, thriving populations of the resplendent quetzal.

This bird was once common in the mountains of Central America. It was deified by the Maya and the male’s long, iridescent streamer feathers were used to decorate kingly headdresses. The quetzal was so sacred that anyone caught killing one could be put to death.

For the quetzal, a dead tree is critical to its life-cycle. Its beak is designed for plucking fruits, not chiseling wood. Instead the quetzal will occupy an abandoned woodpecker hole, enlarging the cavity. The wood must be nice and soft. Even a dead tree has a place in the rainforest ecosystem.

Adults feed primarily on fruits, especially wild avocados. The pit is later regurgitated. Quetzal chicks require a bit more protein, and the parents take turns scouring the forest for fruits and insects to feed to their young.

In the lands of the Maya, quetzals have become rare. Habitat loss to agriculture has had a significant impact. In search of fuel to heat their homes, local farmers often cut down dead trees in the forest…the same trees needed for the quetzal’s nesting activities.

In Costa Rica, however, the resplendent quetzal draws bird-watchers from around the world. New conservation initiatives are encouraging farmers to protect nesting trees on their properties. Visiting tour groups provide the farmers with extra cash, incentivizing the locals to protect this flagship species.

Capturing this exceptional bird on camera was an unforgettable experience, and I’m encouraged to know that the resplendent quetzal, a symbol of the grandeur of the Maya, still thrives in these cloud forests. In other parts of the region, however, quetzals, tapirs, jaguars and countless other animals are threatened as their forests disappear at an alarming rate.

The Maya civilization faded into the jungle 500 years ago. Their legacy, however, lives on. It courses through the veins of Narcisso and Alfonso and Victor. It is etched into the stone of Tikal and Palenque and Coba. And the forests, these vibrant, diverse and threatened jungles: these are the rainforests of the Maya.


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