In the final room of the Mayan People Museum at the Dzibilchaltun archeological site there is a display of an imposing cast iron machine imported from Europe to manufacture henequen twine, a product which came to be known as “green gold.” Henequen is a plant which grows easily in the wild under the difficult climatic conditions of the north Yucatan peninsula. Chelem and sisal are the principal species of henequen. This type of maguey, or agave, which is known as ki in the Maya language, needs little water; it can withstand high temperatures and its roots are adapted to the limestone soils of the peninsula. Henequen fiber is extremely strong, making it highly suitable for rope-making as it is strong enough to stand extreme marine conditions. For this reason the imperial British navy became a principal buyer of henequen rope, leading the henequen haciendas of Yucatan to become part of a highly successful global industry. Close to the twine-making machine we can also see a variety of coins used to pay the peons working on the hacienda, which was so extensive that it once took up the majority of the land of the ancient city of Ich Kaan Ti’Ho, the ancient Cholti’ano name for Dzibilchaltun.
In the mid-seventeenth century, the part of the ancient pre-Hispanic city surrounding the center became one of New Spain’s colonial haciendas. The hacienda functioned originally as a cattle farm. Over the years significant alterations were made to the Xlacah Cenote to house the cattle on its east side, with the building of a stone wall to form a corral. A path was also cut down to the northeast side to enable animals to walk down to the level of the water to drink and be washed.
With the arrival of modernity to the region under the Porfirio Díaz regime, the hacienda was converted into a vast henequen plantation. It is unlikely that the site’s present-day scrubby xerophytic forest was there in pre-Hispanic times. It must be borne in mind that it was necessary to burn enormous quantities of wood to convert limestone into the quicklime used for plastering the surfaces of all buildings in the pre-Hispanic city, as well as for the nixtamalization of tortillas. Between the fifth and the eleventh centuries this implied the extensive deforestation of the area surrounding the pre-Hispanic city of Dzibilchalun. While the young women of the family would carry the water for daily use, the young men would also have woken up very early to look for wood. This was the pattern across the Mexican central highlands according to Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in his "Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España" ("General History of the Things of New Spain"), and it is likely that the roles were similarly divided in the Yucatan peninsula.
Therefore the establishment of a cattle farm in the remains of the ancient pre-Hispanic city would not have required many trees to be cut down. This was highly beneficial for the exploitation of henequen. Indeed, nearly all of the seven-square-mile area of the eighth-century city was used for planting this resistant variety of agave. It was thanks to this degree of deforestation, retained till the early twentieth century, that it was possible to draw up one of the world’s first highly accurate archeological maps.
The map made it possible to carry out an in-depth analysis of the settlement patterns, which suggest a differentiated distribution of the social strata in the territory. The evidence presented by the map indicates that in the Classic period, from 600 to 900 AD, the city had 7,560 stone structures distributed over seven square miles, the majority concentrated into compact groups of different sizes. The settlement was organized around two large central plazas by the Xlacah Cenote, connected by five main and four minor sacbeob paths with architectural complexes at the four points of the compass. An urban analysis of the map of the remains reveals various structural types. There were 240 covered spaces with stone vaults, 194 varied chambers without stone roofs, 1,706 single-space unroofed units of which 1,208 were apsidal and 498 rectangular, 5,964 stone platforms without permanent covering structures and 286 miscellaneous small structures, which must have had a variety of functions.
The grouping of structures in wide terraces varies from ten structures in a small area to 100 in a large one. There are 30 groupings of this type, some of which are a long way away from the cenote. The largest are situated in the center of the settlement. The most important ones have sacbeob, or raised roads, which are more or less at the height of the central plaza. The majority have a variety of structures centered on large patios and pyramidal bases. It is clear that this architectural variation must have been related to social organization, based on ancestry and specialization. The distribution of the social strata appears to have followed a concentric pattern, beginning with a 250-acre core, contained in a densely populated area slightly larger than a square mile, followed by a more dispersed area of five square miles, where stone-roofed buildings are still found. In total the population of the site might have reached 20,000.
This information about the form and function of an ancient Maya city is vital, and it was only possible to obtain it because such a large expanse of land was kept free from low dense forest for so many years. In itself, this situation can hardly be described as beneficial. Ecologically, the loss of so many acres of vegetation was disastrous, above all in terms of the constant erosion of the thin soil layer built up over the limestone plate, which forms the bedrock across the north Yucatan peninsula. Nevertheless the scientific knowledge gained about this regionally important Classic Maya city was a positive side-effect of deforestation. All of this is thanks to the henequen hacienda during the Porfiriato period. The great twine-making machine, probably of Belgian or French origin, is a witness to these historical contradictions.