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What will the current Maya do on Friday? They will entertain a lot of tourists, and sell them textiles and ceramics. They'll go to the market, then go home and watch TV. What would the Classic Maya have done? Have a parade, make a lot of speeches, erect commemorative monuments to the their gods and rulers, and party like it's 1999, er, Nothing is unusual about that. But the Classic Maya also have an apocalyptic warning for us.

The Mayan culture is still there in places, especially Guatemala, but Ladinos have ruled them since the last Maya surrendered to the Spanish in 1697. The Maya had another go at it in 1847's War of the Castes, almost clearing the Mexicans out of the entire Yucatan, but then it got to be harvest time. They did liberate Quintana Roo until 1901. The outbreak in Chiapas in 1994 was another little reminder. The Maya are nothing if not patient. "OK you got us this creation; we'll catch you next time."

My study of the Maya over the years has been motivated by my Cold War era apocalyptic fears and my interest in Limits to Growth, which I studied and learned its methodology at MIT's System Dynamics Group. Ultimately it seems to me that the Maya reached the limits of their demographic growth, then a climatic crisis hit which reduced those limits. Rather than collective, shared sacrifice to live within those limits, they engaged in apocalyptic warfare - making previously farmed land unsafe to use and thereby further narrowing their limits, which then triggered more warfare and made more land unsafe. This was the death spiral for the Classic Maya, which got their population far below the limits of growth. In the aftermath, they abandoned the strongly hierarchical Classic society that provided higher limits but worse strife in favor of a simpler society. The cultural folkways of pottery, clothing, and food persisted. So did conflict. But it, like population, was at much lower levels until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.

More below the Orange Mayan Kan serpent...

Why did Classic Maya civilization collapse? The Late Preclassic (400 BC – 300 AD) and Classic Maya (300 AD – 900 AD) were the most sophisticated of native New World civilizations, thriving in what are now Guatemala, southern Mexico, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Maya hieroglyphics have been authoritatively deciphered in the last 30 years, bringing the Classic Maya from prehistory into history. Previous theories of peaceful Maya that prevailed into the 1970s notwithstanding, it seems that they were no more peaceful than their contemporaries in the Old World, or their successors everywhere. There were significant regional variations within Maya lands.  The current paradigm, as described in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Forest Civilization (Demarest 2004) and The Fall of the Ancient Maya (Webster 2002), involves environmental factors and the changes in carrying capacity as before. But it also incorporates warfare at times–a lot of warfare: not just raiding parties to obtain hostages for ritual sacrifice, but full-scale, crop-burning, city-emptying warfare.

Why did the literate society that began before 400 BC in the Mirador Basin of Guatemala, building spectacular monuments dedicated with detailed chronicles of the birth, death, marriages and wars of its kings, come to an end in its Maya Lowland home? A shadow of it persisted in the northern Yucatan at Chichen Itza and Mayapán, among others, until the Spanish conquest. A Maya chieftaincy survived in Guatemala until 1697. There are over five million speakers of Maya languages in Mexico and Guatemala today. But the chronicles of kings are silent after 1000 AD, and grand palace complexes were built no more. In addition, population densities dropped substantially, and the mode of rule changed from a single k’uhul ahau (divine king) to a multepal (council of nobles).

Initially influenced by the Olmec civilization of the Tabasco coast, Late Preclassic El Mirador in the Petén of Guatemala had about 100,000 people in the first century AD, and was as large as any of its successors in the lowlands. It was abandoned shortly thereafter. In the meantime kingship spread from the Mirador basin more broadly throughout the lowlands, and the pattern was repeated on a much larger scale.

Maya kings had, as we might say today, limited policy choices. Food production was handled locally, and trade in food was minimal. There was little irrigation or other economic infrastructure that required royal supervision or provided opportunity for royal management. Kings had two choices: build monuments or go to war. But those choices were related. When in stress, they went to war. When victorious in war, they built monuments. When defeated, they lost their lives and no monuments were built. In the apocalyptic wars of the eighth and ninth centuries, the divine lowland Maya kings had no reverse gear, no peace treaties, and no choices. They were gods who conquered all problems militarily or died trying. International enmity was eternal.

In the aftermath of the regional collapses, kingship itself was found wanting and was abolished, along with its military and architectural policies. Until the sixteenth century Mayan culture continued with echoes of those policies, but politically the changes were irrevocable. Maya writing did not disappear altogether until after the Spanish arrived and Bishop Diego Landa had his “auto-de-fe” in July 1562 (Landa 1566) to burn all the Maya codices, of which only four are known to have escaped. However, the astronomically sophisticated Long Count was forgotten and the breathtaking palace complexes of Palenque, Tikal, Copán, and Calakmul were covered and hidden by the forest, never to be reclaimed or replaced. Maya culture continues to this day. The k’uhul ahau was no more.

Warfare had a negligible effect on the viability of Classic Maya civilization until the carrying capacity was approached, but at that point warfare destroyed it. The Classic divine kingdoms created substantial peace dividends, which were destroyed at times of resource scarcity.The language survived. The population survived, though much reduced. But the k’uhul ahau disappeared, and the royal astronomers and chroniclers, the architects, stone masons, and builders became shadows of their former selves. The post-Classic societies in Coba, Chichen Itza, and Mayapan were ruled by multepals (councils), so while they were quicker to internal conflict and did not have as large a peace dividend, they also did not fall as hard or have as far to fall in a crisis.

What I find most compelling about the Maya is the contrast to the Western Civilization that I am a part of. Since over ten millennia separates their cultural heritage from mine, the comparison is endlessly fascinating. They were the most advanced of New World civilizations, and as such were the most exotic. That they had a written language, and we can treat them as a historical society, is especially powerful. Yet despite the long divergence and the distinctive presentation, there are immediately recognizable political, social, and religions themes. I get a richer sense of identity by seeing different people and their way of life. No civilization was more different than the Maya.

Quoting Demarest (2004, p. 296):

"[T]he study of the ancient Maya is fascinating precisely because their civilization appears to be so different from our own. The structure of ecological adaptations, settlement patterns, and political and economic institutions could not be more unlike the Western, Mesopotamian, and Judeo-Christian tradition of our own civilization. For at least 6000 years, the hallmarks of the Western tradition have been linear concepts of time, monocultural agricultural systems, overproduction and exchange of surplus in full market economies, technology-driven development, a long history of attempts to separate religious and political authority, and judgmental gods concerned with individual, personal moral conduct. As we learn from the Maya, none of these traits is universal, none of them was characteristic of Classic Maya civilization, and none of them is critical to the florescence of high civilization."
Yet the differences were not total. Other traits were shared even after millennia of divergence, like a violent response to shortages. Limits to Growth was a great and influential book that has fostered much necessary thought, discussion, and action. But it's suggestive of a Far Side cartoon with one fly in a sealed jar looking up, startled, and saying to its many companions busily eating honey, "Hey, we're in a jar!" Limits to Growth is too optimistic. Paraphrasing John Sterman in Business Dynamics (Sterman 2000), all models are wrong, but they can be right enough to make their point, which Limits to Growth did. The most glaring omission is of politics and the patron/client relationships at their heart. There is no constituency for lowering the growth in energy usage, much less for lowering energy usage. The world as a whole is in a situation strongly analogous to the Classic Maya. We are playing a positive-sum game. Whether it continues for a k'atun, b'ak'tun (394 years), or p'ik'tun (7,885 years), we cannot say, though the b'ak'tun seems an outside number and a k’atun an inside number. When we approach our limits, what will WE do? Will we walk in the steps of the Classic Maya, and turn our collective pain into global apocalypse? That is the apocalypse that they warn us of.


ADDENDUM: Validation and Verification

At this point it is necessary to delve into the archaeology and history of the Maya, exploring the different types of data, and what can (and cannot) be gleaned from them. Per Webster (2007, p. 294), several types of data inform this model: architectural; epigraphic (monumental inscriptions); settlement (regional survey/demographics); and paleoenvironmental (e.g., pollen content in sediment cores).

The Maya typically dedicated their buildings, and in doing so, dated them. This is the single most obvious data source throughout Mayan lands.  Buildings can also occasionally be carbon-dated. The clear variations in construction of monumental buildings over time was the first piece of evidence to the outside world that the Classical Maya civilization existed, and that it had come to an unequivocal and apparently abrupt end. Most of the buildings visible now were built on top of earlier buildings of the same site that were decommissioned. There was a Preclassic increase in construction from about 600 BC in the Mirador Basin, in places like Nakbe and El Mirador. Those sites were abandoned c. 150 AD. There was also Preclassic construction in places like Tikal, some of which was abandoned and some of which was buried by later and larger structures. There may be more pre-collapse buildings yet to be found, as comprehensive excavations have not been done uniformly through the area, but the overall pattern is clear. Construction crescendoed until the late eighth century, and then collapsed precipitously.

The earliest Mayan monumental inscriptions yet found date to 36 BC; the last are from 910 AD. Before the Spanish arrived there were numerous written records on bark, but most were destroyed: only four books have survived. They and the monuments (primarily stelae) describe warfare, coronations, births, and period endings (analogous to New Year’s Endo of Decade and End of Century observances, but in the Mayan base-20 calendar). No population data is in them, but like construction the surviving monuments themselves rise steadily in numbers from the third century to the seventh century, and then drop off precipitously in the next century (Webster 2007, p. 209). This curve represents an aggregate from all areas of the Mayan world, with the caveats that preservation is not as good in northern areas, and exploration has been uneven. Since the inscriptions are so large and difficult to move, they are the most uniformly studied throughout the Mayan lands, wherever found.

Mayan archaeology is done on a site-by site basis. While all sites with large concentrations of buildings and inscriptions have had them studied, the other types of data have been more unevenly sought or even available. Some sites, like Tikal, have nearby lake whose sediments can be retrieved and analyzed for tree ring-like layers, within which the concentrations of various pollen and chemicals is indicative of environmental changes in its drainage basin (Webster 2007, p. 256). Phosphorus loading, vegetation, soil erosion, and several other proxies for environmental changes and stress can be divined from sediments. The pattern in Tikal seems to be of monotonic exponential growth, starting in the Preclassic, to a peak in the Late Classic then a more precipitous logarithmic decline.

Finally, at some sites comprehensive cross-sectional surveys have been done of residential structures. Again at Tikal, “the 16 sq. km zone immediately around Tikal’s monumental precincts has been extensively mapped, as have sites in survey arms extending radially out in the cardinal directions.” (Webster 2007, p. 263). From these surveys population densities can be calculated and applied to the entire area, revealing substantial populations that fluctuated considerably over time.

Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 10:45 PM PT: Bibliography added here:

Tue May 07, 2013 at 6:28 PM PT: I'll be presenting a geekier version of this paper in Boston this summer:

Originally posted to Tom Lum Forest on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 02:33 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.


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