Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine: Digging into Belize

By Kevin Tankersley

If you ever find yourself having dinner in the Central American country of Belize and you’re served chicken-pineapple enchiladas, or maybe chicken in coconut sauce, there’s a good chance that the bird on your plate came from Spanish Lookout, a Mennonite farming community close to the western border with Guatemala.

An interdisciplinary team of scholars from the Baylor College of Arts & Sciences has been conducting research in Belize over the past year, but they are doing much more than just sampling the local cuisine. Spanish Lookout is one of three communities in the western interior Cayo District where the Baylor group is studying the long-term influence of climate change on livelihood strategies that focus on agricultural production and distribution. How food security impacts nutritional security and human health status is a second primary component of the project. The Baylor faculty members lead a larger research team with members from Northern Arizona University and Penn State University, as well as a pair of climate scientists from Ruhr University in Germany.

Besides studying Spanish Lookout, the team is looking into the agricultural habits of the Maya village of San Antonio as well as an Amish community called Upper Bartons Creek.

“We are looking at how these populations have responded to changing environmental conditions over roughly 1,500 years, largely in terms of their agricultural activities,” said Dr. Sara Alexander, associate professor of anthropology. “We’re documenting not only the interrelationships between the ecological system and the human system, but also how humans are impacting the natural world and the ways in which local ecology is influencing human lifeways. The ultimate focus is on how humans are responding to changing environmental conditions and, in turn, the ultimate impacts on human health.”

The work is important, Alexander said, because the researchers, working within their own specialties, will determine a timeline of when the area flourished agriculturally and how communities responded to major environmental changes –– in this case, severe drought occurring with some frequency. They will examine 1,500 years worth of soil samples, human remains and other archaeological artifacts including pottery shards to establish when the residents were in the middle of political upheaval, and when their society suffered collapse.

Dr. Julie Hoggarth, assistant professor of anthropology, is leading the archaeological component of the project. The Maya, research has shown, dug a series of ditches to either irrigate their fields or move water out of the area during excessive rainy seasons.

“The part I’m directing focuses on excavating some of these ditch fields to collect soil samples in order to date the construction of the ditch field complex,” Hoggarth said. She’s hoping to learn whether the Maya dug the ditches during periods of high precipitation to move the water away, or during droughts when water was scarce.

Hoggarth said that while she’s collecting the samples, researchers in the geosciences will do the actual analysis of the soil to determine what plants and crops were growing at the time. They will “analyze the carbon content and the nitrogen content from each of the different levels of the soil, and that will tell us about the types of crops that they grew and about the local environmental conditions,” she said.

Different communities

The research being done in Belize relating to modern agricultural patterns is both exciting and challenging because of the diverse natures of the three communities being studied. All three are located within the same river valley in Belize, which is a country about the same size as Vermont or New Hampshire.

“Belize is a relatively small country, yet ethnically diverse,” Alexander said. “In present-day Belize, there are 14 different ethnic groups.”

There has been a Maya presence in the area since the early 16th century, so it was crucial to include Maya in the study, Alexander said. The present-day village of San Antonio is populated mostly by Maya, with “some other kind of folks living there, including migrants from Guatemala and other parts of Belize, primarily through marriage,” she said. Today, residents in this village still subsist through farming and ranching.

The Mennonites of Spanish Lookout, meanwhile, have only been in the area since 1957, migrating from Manitoba, Canada, through Mexico. Alexander said they raise a lot of chickens, providing most of the country’s supply, as well as cattle, sheep, goats and corn. The Mennonites are also known for their work in mechanics and construction, she added, and they’re considered to be economically successful.

“Spanish Lookout is considered to be a very developed community,” Alexander said. “Some of the Mennonites wouldn’t necessarily call themselves wealthy, but they’re secure economically, able to withstand different types of environmental shocks, whereas the Maya and Amish communities are more vulnerable.”

Interview challenges

In addition to the archeological and geological work that will allow Baylor researchers to help collect data from a 1,500 year-period, Alexander and other scholars from the team are also in the process of interviewing residents of the three communities about modern-day conditions and beliefs, which presents another set of challenges.

In the Amish community, for instance, Alexander said team members were able to gain access to people living in the Upper Bartons Creek area, but were discouraged from contacting those living in Lower Bartons Creek, which is generally regarded as a more closed community.

Language differences are another challenge to overcome. While English is spoken in Belize –– a former British colony –– other languages are used throughout the country, including Spanish, an English-based “creole” language (a hybrid mixture of different languages native to the area) and a dialect called “low German.”

“I grew up in a family that spoke Low German,” said Dr. Paul Martens, an associate professor of religion at Baylor who serves as director of interdisciplinary programs for the College of Arts & Sciences. As part of the Belize team, he’s looking at how the communities’ basic religious convictions “align or don’t align with certain practices or beliefs, and whether these convictions have any bearing on how residents think about their food and how they live on the land.”

Martens said his modest familiarity with low German and Canadian Mennonite communities comes in handy when he’s interviewing members of the Belize Mennonite community which originated in Canada, where Martens grew up.

“We spent several weeks doing interviews,” Martens said. “We were invited into homes and machine shops and garages, and we had long conversations that took up to two-and-a-half hours. We would talk through the way that the farmers talked about their experience of climate, droughts and floods. We talked about health issues in the family and community, and we talked about some cultural and religious convictions they held individually and as a community. It was both incredibly informative and fascinating.”

In addition to interviewing farmers and ranchers, Alexander and Dr. Alan Schultz, assistant professor of anthropology, interviewed a number of healthcare professionals to identify major present-day health issues in these communities. They also identified some of the challenges faced in providing quality healthcare in a developing country in Central America –– a region with a mixed record in terms of basic health demographics.

Making predictions

After Hoggarth and other team members use archaeology to gather 1,500 years’ worth of soil and climate data, and interviewers (led by Alexander and assisted by Martens and Schultz) talk to residents about current conditions, they will pass on all the information they’ve gathered to Dr. Joseph White, professor of biology at Baylor. He will use modeling to determine how agricultural and natural ecosystems in Belize might have changed over the past 1,500 years, as well as predict what they might look like 80 years in the future.

“Models allow us to incorporate decisions made by pre-classical Mayan farmers to simulate how intensively crops were growing with resulting impacts on soil quality and food production,” White said.

The model White uses was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he also uses the Soil and Water Assessment Tool that was developed by Dr. Peter Allen, professor of geosciences at Baylor, and Jeff Arnold, an agricultural engineer with the USDA Grassland Soil and Water Research Laboratory in Temple. White said the model can show indications of past decisions regarding the growing of crops under a particular climate. This can also be used to help farmers in Belize determine what they might do now and in the future to ensure agricultural success.

Interdisciplinary benefits

The interdisciplinary nature of the research being done on the Belize project is crucial, said White, who, along with colleagues in biology, geosciences and environmental studies, created The Institute for Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (TIE3S) at Baylor to promote interdisciplinary collaboration on global environmental issues.

“We traditionally did things in isolation,” White said. “In other words, someone might go out and study how stalagmites form under different conditions, for example –– and that’s important simply for learning how that system works. An archaeologist might study the types of ceramics that were produced, or an anthropologist might look at how bones and burial mounds are preserved. These are all valuable individually, but when you put all those pieces together, you begin to see interactions. We go from having a single-dimension view of the past, present and future to having this multi-dimensional view that requires different types of minds and specialties.”

Martens said that he and Alexander had worked together on smaller projects on campus, and said his involvement in the Belize project emphasizes the true interdisciplinary aspect of the work.

“Traditionally the anthropologists used their own kind of disciplinary tools, and the geologists as well,” he said, “and the religious and ethical piece I am researching is something that we at Baylor value as an institution. We’re very curious whether there are correlations here that matter.”

To enable the research being done in Belize to begin, Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences provided $25,000 in seed money to kickstart the project. To continue the work, the team has applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

“If you’ve ever applied for NSF funding, it’s very unusual that you get it the first go-round,” White said. “It’s almost like they want you to accomplish the study before you can go on. But the seed money allowed us to get important information such as the preliminary surveys and quantitative analysis on soil samples. This has provided, hopefully, key preliminary results for consideration of full funding from NSF. That’s what this money has given us the capability to have.”


This article was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, which is available in full here


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