The Mayas Mesoamerica 200 ce to 900 ce

Ever since the discovery of Mayan ruins in the Honduran jungle during the mid-1800s, the remnants of this majestic civilization have lured archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists from around the world. By 900 bce the Mayan civilization had spread across the region we now know as Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Belize, and the northern half of Guatemala. Between 250 ce and 900 ce, Mayan civilization reached its zenith, producing great intellectual achievements in the arts, mathematics, and astronomy. Moreover, the Mayas evolved the only elaborate writing system native to the Americas. Without metal tools, horses, oxen, or even the wheel, they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety. Their massive pyramids across Central America have become modern-day monuments to their cultural legacy. Their great cities were dominated by brightly decorated royal palaces that gleamed in the tropical sun, and the grandeur of the greatest of all Mayan centers, the 123-square-kilometer metropolitan town of Tikal, rivaled that of Rome, Alexandria, and the great centers of China. Their cultural legacy has survived in spectacular fashion there and also at places like Palenque, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Copin, and Uxmal. The Mayas created elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple pyramids, palaces, and observatories. They were also skilled farmers, who cleared large sections of tropical rainforest, and, where groundwater was scarce, they built sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Mayas were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and they built roads through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.134

The ancient Mayan civilization occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The topography of the area varied greatly, from the volcanic mountains of the Highlands in the south to the porous limestone shelf known as the Lowlands in the central and northern regions. The southern portion of the Lowlands was covered by a rainforest with an average height of about 150 feet. Scattered savannas and swamps appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests. The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests, but, because the area was drier than its southern counterpart, trees were small and thorny. February to May marked the dry season, characterized by intensely hot and uncomfortable weather. At this time of year, the fields were freshly cut and burned in a type of slash-and-burn agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains cleared the polluted atmosphere.

Originally, the region was blessed with abundant flora and fauna, including large predators like the jaguar and the caiman crocodile, and many species of poisonous snake. These animals threatened human invaders, who scavenged the forest for deer, turkeys, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. Many varieties of monkey and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy. The climate of the Highlands greatly contrasted with that of the Lowlands, as it was much cooler and drier.135

Both the Highlands and the Lowlands possessed important economic value for the Mayan civilization. The Lowlands primarily produced crops for personal consumption, the principal cultigen being maize. But Lowland Mayas also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton (for light cloth), and sisal (for heavy cloth and rope). The volcanic Highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayas used for trade. Rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands, with the water draining toward the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers were vital to the civilization, providing transportation for both people and materials.

The Mayan civilization survived as a cultural system for more than 1,000 years but vanished in the ninth century CE. Scholars have suggested a number of reasons for its sudden collapse: typhoons, diseases, or earthquakes were initially thought to have been responsible for this terrible "fate."136 Others speculated that the Mayas were vanquished by the Vikings. Researchers at the University of Florida have presented a more convincing explanation based upon the analysis of 15 feet of sediment in Lake Chinancanab in the Yucatan Peninsula. The data suggest that the region underwent a prolonged drought. Researchers have found evidence of a sharp decrease in rainfall between 800 and 1000 ce, which was roughly the era of Mayan decline. According to paleontologist Scott Stine, it was one of the most severe climatic aberrations in 10,000 years. Stine cites recent evidence that suggests that the drought extended as far north as California.137 Equipped with these findings, researchers were able to document the occurrence of severe climatic changes during this critical period.138

A dearth of water appears to have been one of the decisive elements in the collapse of Mayan civilization. At the time, an estimated 5 million people lived within close proximity in the Mexican Lowlands. Their food supply appears to have been extremely low during this period. Ever-larger sections of the rainforest needed to be cut down by farmers to keep pace with the sharply increasing population. By the eighth century, vast stretches of the jungle had been completely cleared and uprooted, and half of the harvest was going to the parasitic upper social classes in the urban centers.139 The disappearance of the lush vegetation was a major factor in the ensuing climate change.

As this chapter shows, the predicament of Mayan civilization was shared by many other Neolithic civilizations: rapid population growth, incessant warfare, and sharp social inequalities combined with careless ecological practices to produce fundamental environmental changes that led to a serious social crisis and an eventual cultural collapse. These conditions often exacerbated human tendencies toward violence. A US research team found that within 50 years, the Mayan population dropped to 5 per cent of its previous level. The head of the team, archaeologist Arthur Demarest, notes that this collapse was due to ferocious warfare.140

The lessons to be drawn from the decline of the Mayan civilization is that societies based on growth economics - with elites demanding ever-higher levels of material well-being - eventually reach their limits.141 Mayan civilization was caught in a spiral of escalating consumption driven by the society's elites and their penchant for pharaonic building projects and chronic warfare. The more temples that were built, and the more enemies that had to be vanquished, the more food had to be supplied to feed the builders, priests, and soldiers. The need for increased food production correspondingly required more farmers. Likewise, constant warfare stimulated population growth in response to the demand for soldiers.142

If this explanation is correct, then it is reasonable to conclude that the consumption patterns of the Mayan civilization exceeded the carrying capacity of their environment, especially during a prolonged period of drought.

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