Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



Major Professor

Sally P. Horn

Committee Members

Ronald Foresta, Lydia M. Pulsipher


The cohune palm (Orbignya cohune) is a common and conspicuous member of the subtropical lowland forests of Belize, Central America. The palm also thrives in the open areas of human settlement; combined, the palm's dominance in both settings creates a rural "palm landscape". This thesis examines that landscape, addressing two ways in which humans and the cohune palm interact. First, apparently anomalous high-density cohune forests are examined for the role of ancient Mayan agriculture in their genesis. Data from this study show these stands may reach densities of 21,640 conspecific stems/ha. Cohune stands all over Belize were identified, their densities quantified, and their prehistoric and post-Columbian histories reconstructed. Did Mayan encouragement of this palm contribute to its present monodominance on edaphically rich sites in Belize? Despite the popularity of this anthropogenic explanation, the findings of this study revealed no uniquely similar histories among comparably dense cohune stands. Combined with an examination of their population size structures, it is argued here that such monodominant stands should be interpreted as natural expressions of particularly fertile edaphic conditions, and not as a "cultural" vegetation.

The second aspect examined of cohune-human interaction was the degree to which human use of the cohune matches its abundance in rural areas. Within the context of popular interest in extractive forest products, the cohune appears an ideal example: thatch, oil, and heart-of-palm are all extracted from cohune forests. This study reveals, however, that the degree to which these activities are still carried out is negligible, and typically makes use of forests slated to be felled anyway. Although the study's survey was most thorough in the Cayo District, the results show a general pattern of very low use in Belize that is most defined at socio-economic extremes, with rural populations relying on cohune products in times of need, and urbanites occasionally "treating themselves" to cohune oil or palmito.

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