We used seismic and sediment core data to quantify soil erosion rates for the past ∼6000 yr in the closed catchment of Lake Salpetén, in the tropical lowlands of northern Guatemala. The region was affected by ancient Maya land use from before ca. 1000 B.C. to A.D. 900. This period of human impact coincided with deposition in the lake of a detrital unit (Maya Clay) as much as 7 m thick that contrasts sharply with the relatively organic-rich gyttja deposited both before and after Maya occupation of the watershed. The greatest soil loss, with mean sustained values of ∼1000 t/km2yr−1, occurred in the Middle and Late Preclassic Periods (700 B.C. to A.D. 250), associated with relatively low Maya population densities. Soil erosion slowed during the period of maximum population density in the Late Classic Period (A.D. 550–830), indicating a decoupling between human population density and soil erosion rate. The most rapid soil loss occurred early during initial land clearance, suggesting that even low numbers of people can have profound impacts on lowland tropical karst landscapes.

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