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Ancient Maya civilization

ImageAncient Maya civilization has a remarkable appeal to the general public, partly because of the exotic contrast of their world with our industrialized society. Also, the popular press usually can be counted on to characterize Maya civilization as mysterious, unknowable, unique, as well as bizarre, weird, and awe-inspiring. The exotic, tropical setting of most ancient Maya ruins adds to the appeal for those who do not have to live there.

The environmental realities are quite different. The jungles offer maximum heat and insects, alternating deluge and drought and a milieu in which bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing organisms flourish. And cultural realities can be just as different as some romanticized perceptions. Sadly, the exotic image has often masked the truth. The real Maya are truly one of the most interesting and important early civilizations to evolve in place from simple beginnings.

Ancient Maya civilization has a remarkable appeal to the general public, partly because of the exotic contrast of their world with our industrialized society. Also, the popular press usually can be counted on to characterize Maya civilization as mysterious, unknowable, unique, as well as bizarre, weird, and awe-inspiring. The exotic, tropical setting of most ancient Maya ruins adds to the appeal for those who do not have to live there.

ImageThe environmental realities are quite different. The jungles offer maximum heat and insects, alternating deluge and drought and a milieu in which bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing organisms flourish. And cultural realities can be just as different as some romanticized perceptions. Sadly, the exotic image has often masked the truth. The real Maya are truly one of the most interesting and important early civilizations to evolve in place from simple beginnings.

One valid reason for their amazing appeal is that, unlike such cultures as the Sumerians and the Indus Valley peoples, they were never absorbed by vastly different cultures. Today tourists are encouraged to visit the "living Maya." Somewhat like former millionaires sleeping on heating grates, the present- day Maya, many living in abject poverty, are so different from their great ancestors that for years few believed that they were the descendants of the creators of the great cities in the jungle. Their civilization had passed its peak by the time the Americas were discovered, and their greatest cities were long abandoned and overgrown. The survivors were conquered or nearly wiped out by European diseases as much as by swords and muskets.

ImageThe romantic school of Maya studies emphasizes the ancient written texts and complex art as its data. Blood-letting rituals of unspeakable intimacy, hallucinogenic enemas, blood-deprivation induced visions, ritualized warfare triggered by the conjunctions of Venus with other stars and like notions have been advanced as indicative of the real nature of Maya culture. These notions are almost certainly wrong or exaggerated.

This is not necessary. John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood virtually launched Maya archaeology in 1839 with the publication of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Since then field archaeology as well as careful and cautious interpretation of hieroglyphs and art have created a veritable library of reliable information about the Maya. The past forty years, especially, have seen an explosion of knowledge in the field.

ImageLike all pre-Columbian Americans, the ancestors of the Maya almost certainly came from Asia sometime between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago by way of the ice age continent of Beringia, known popularly as the "land bridge." By about 1500 B.C. the nomadic, small hunting and gathering bands had organized into large groups living in villages and soon had shifted to food production. These pioneer farmers penetrated and tamed the vast tropical forest by use of the slash-and-burn system of agriculture. By 600 B.C. they had severely modified most of the landscape and much of the forest was down.

A long cultural evolution from village society to civilization was spurred by several factors. First, population growth led to intensive forms of agriculture and more people meant the need for more stored water to carry them through the annual drought or dry season. This, in turn, led to the creation of reservoirs which called for management. Stored water also became a means of social control, and the kin group leaders Imagebecame political leaders as well. Religious affairs are always important for kinship-oriented societies, and the new elite probably used this lever to argue that they and their families were socially superior as a result of genealogies which they linked to the gods of creation. Rivalries among the new elites led to warfare, which appears to have accelerated the move to more complex cultural forms. Skills already developed in building stone temples were adapted to the construction of defenses and fortresses. Social structure became a class/caste society, and political structures were transformed into state-level organizations. Nearly all major cultural institutions became hierarchically organized as well. These changes were accomplished by 300. Thereafter, Maya prehistory assumed familiar historical forms with the rise and fall of dynasties, internal political intrigue, wars between states, and trade and diplomatic connections with distant powers.

ImageBy 750 the Maya had evolved a distinctive civilization and had long since formed large regional states in the lowlands of the greater Yucatan Peninsula featuring large pre-industrial cities. Tikal and Calakmul with 80,000 and 50,000 inhabitants respectively were regional capitals with many subordinate cities under them.

By comparison, 16th century London was the largest city in the British Isles with a population of 50,000. Many other centers classified by Imagethe English as cities had as few as 3500 people. Just as many European cities of the period suffered high death rates resulting from poor sanitation and crowding, so did Tikal and Calakmul. Studies of skeletal material by Frank P. Saul of the Medical College of Ohio indicate persistent and widespread disease and malnutrition. The earliest skeletons are the tallest and most robust while later populations, even the nobility, declined in stature and show signs of more endemic disease and malnourishment.

Maya cities were sustained by large rural populations. Based on intensive ground surveys (mine and others), there were as many as 450 Imagepeople per square mile. This astounding density is similar to that found today in crowded rural zones such as northern Nigeria. One current fallacy is that Native American populations lived in harmony with nature with relatively little deleterious effect. It is simply not true for the Maya or many other Mesoamerican groups, or probably for the New World as a whole. Thirteen hundred years after their entry into the lowlands around 750 nearly every square meter of land had been modified. This was done first by slash-and-burn farming and later by intensive agricultural systems such as swamp drainage, hillside terracing, and field rotation systems. The vast tropical forests of recent times are a result of 1100 years of recovery after the catastrophic Maya collapse about 840. Maya cities therefore did not exist in the midst of dense tropical forests and could not have functioned if they had.

ImageThe large-scale water collecting, transmission and storage systems called for acres of pavement atop ridges connected by stone-lined canals to large and well- designed reservoirs. The recent research of Vernon Scarborough of the University of Cincinnati has revealed features such as sluice gate points and baffle walls at the entries of reservoirs. Large surface storage facilities were needed because of the peculiar climatic conditions of the lowlands. Annual droughts of about 120 days alternate with periods of tropical downpours that may yield as much as 100 inches in 150 days. Maya technology was unable to tap the deep aquifers of the peninsula by wells, making large scale surface water storage vital.

From about 650 to 850 Maya farmers spread over the countryside with houses of the nobility scattered among modest commoner houses. Small administrative centers took over many managerial functions from the larger cities. The implications are that generalized feudal Imagerelationships developed between commoners and aristocratic families at the expense of centralized government and their dynasties of royal families. During the last stages of the Roman Empire similar decentralization eventually produced the specific brand of European feudalism that is so historically familiar.

Maya society had early developed a variety of mixed caste and class features with a closed group of nobility at the top who were regarded as divine. About 250, they constituted about 5 percent of the population, but by 750 they may have made up an oppressive 25 percent. Administration, religious leadership, management of major public works, and war occupied their time. They lived luxuriously in palaces built of stone and were served by multitudes of retainers. The rulers and their families were buried in monumental tombs that we call temples but which are really great monuments to the ancestors. Below them in the social scale was the great mass of the population whose status was largely defined by their occupations: farmers, construction workers, sculptors, and the like. These people lived in small houses grouped into family compounds; many of the structures were made of stone walls with thatched roofs.

ImageThe Maya were not the simple, peace-loving and philosophically oriented people portrayed by many writers. Warfare was common and fluctuated in intensity throughout their history. About 250 several regional states, including Tikal and Calakmul, began expansions based on conquest. Many of the famous carved stone stelae record such conquests and show miserable and apprehensive captives at the feet of robust, overpowering rulers. Some of these records are exaggerated and qualify as propaganda. Nonetheless, it is clear that for the next 600 years the Maya fought wars of territorial conquest as well as conflicts over aristocratic prestige. Most large-scale field and formal fortifications were built at this time. Studies of the archaeological and written records at Calakmul and other sites by William Folan and Joyce Marcus reveal that Tikal and Calakmul, some 70 miles away, were in intermittent but bitter rivalry. In other words, war was fought by the Maya for the classic purposes outlined by Thucydides: fear, interest, and honor. Donald Kagan of Yale University has convincingly argued the universality of these motives in his book The Origins of War. The Maya tend to confirm his point. Just as interesting, the intellectually inclined Maya appear to have been the greatest militarists in Mesoamerica, outstripping even the later Aztecs. However, slaves were uncommon in Maya society. Feudal ties of reciprocal loyalties and obligations would ease the shift of such loyalties by commoners to new overlords. Therefore, there was probably little point in keeping great numbers of disgruntled captive laborers who had to be guarded and otherwise cared for. It was much better to have client families taking care of their own needs.

The Maya tended to use the "Egyptian solution" in dealing with large-scale construction projects. That is, the alternative to technology was in the sophisticated use of massed human labor. The construction of the B-29 airfields of World War II in China mainly by hand tools and human muscle power is a modern example. The famous buildings of the Maya were costly in several ways. Vast amounts of labor were required in the off seasons from farmers who became parts of construction gangs. Huge amounts of slaked lime were produced by burning limestone for use in high quality mortar and stucco. This process led to further deforestation, already a problem because of the extensive use of wood for commoner housing and as fuel. Skill in planning and execution of building projects required specialists. In the end, the Maya erected glorious monuments to the ancestors and their deified kings. Like classical Greek statuary, originally brightly painted, so were Maya temples decorated with multicolored, modeled stucco. These gaudy structures were located amidst acres of white pavement, often used to direct rainwater to underground cisterns.

ImageWriting and art were at the service of the aristocracy largely for the purposes of "history, myth and propaganda," according to Joyce Marcus, author of Mesoamerican Writing Systems. This realism contrasts greatly with that of some epigraphers and art historians, whose attitude may be summed up by one statement that ". . . the Maya do not lie!" If so, the Maya were the only elite group in history that has not done so, making them more unusual than we thought. Without getting into the details of the quarrel, there is no doubt that a great deal can be learned from the recent decipherment of Maya writing. However, much of the decipherment is tentative and rapidly shifting and therefore unreliable unless checked against the hard, independent data of field archaeology. Fortunately, several scholars appear to be doing this. Epigraphers Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube have recently suggested that Tikal and Calakmul were the capitals of large regional states; a view that goes against the somewhat naive argument that one place name glyph equals one political unit. This new view of the texts ties in well with field survey and excavation data, which show that in some cases large groups of Maya cities were allied with one another and in others indicate that they were independent city-states. Maya politics were complex. There were at least three types of states at the time of the Spanish conquest: large regional states, confederations, and allied city-states. These probably also represent an older reality.

The catastrophic collapse of Classic Maya civilization may be the most noteworthy aspect of this civilization for scholars. Since a School of American Research conference on the matter in 1970, it has become ever clearer that overpopulation was a major factor in making the MayaImage vulnerable to failure. There is evidence that Maya population was growing at the average annual rate of about 2.5 percent between 650 and 840. This exponential rate of growth is about the same as that in many third-world countries today. It forced the Maya to do many of the same things being done today to increase food production. There was a surge in the development of wetland gardens in swamps and along rivers, as well as extensive hillside terracing. One 10,000 km2 region, the Rio Bec, is covered with hillside terraces and huge numbers of farmsteads. The increased size of the commoner population was surpassed in growth rate by the non-food-producing elite. State leaders tend to encourage population growth because the elites, whether managerial, aristocratic or oligarchic, have agendas which require large numbers of people. Elites are also buffered against the consequences of their mistakes, unlike village-level leadership.

ImageBy 750 Maya population and environment were showing several stresses. One was malnutrition, revealed by the increased incidence of the signs of scurvy in skeletons. The stature of all classes dropped, indicating a shortage of animal protein. Diseases endemic to the area increased as well, probably including Chagas disease, yellow fever, and a New-World form of malaria, according to Frank P. Saul. Water scarcity was caused by a series of dry years in the early 9th century as well as by extensive drainage projects. As resources became scarce, warfare increased and disrupted farming, as always. The triggering event of the collapse appears to have been a long drought beginning about 840. Food production probably dropped, with consequent famines or near famines. Lowered biological resistance in the context of endemic disease could have caused epidemics or pandemics. Social disorganization, management problems and loss of faith in the social and political systems likely contributed to the collapse, which probably required less than a generation.

The lack of recovery is an authentically unique feature of Maya history. Some areas show continuity of human occupation. These are mainly in the northern plain of Yucatan along the Caribbean coasts and inland around a chain of lakes. The reasons for non-recovery in the vast central zones of the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala (ca. 150,000 km2) are fairly straightforward. If neglected, abandoned cultivation zones in these tropical areas produce a thorny "second growth" vegetation which may reach above one’s head in as little as six weeks. Research has shown that populations were reduced by an estimated 85 percent, which left few survivors to grapple with silted-up irrigation and drainage systems, breakdowns of terrace walls or the clearance of exhausted soils. Finally, it appears that the survivors congregated where water sources were secure. It was in such areas that Europeans found the Maya when they arrived in the 16th century.

ImageIn European historical experience the nearest parallels to the Maya collapse are found in the events of 1348 and afterward. Before this date human population grew exponentially and marginal lands were cultivated that had never been tilled nor has been since (for example, around Bordeaux). Famines are recorded for the years before 1348, and presumably health status was precarious. The introduction of the Black Death, bubonic and pneumonic plagues, drastically reduced populations over the next 150 years. Zurich, to take one case, lost an estimated 60 percent of its population in the summer of 1348 alone. However, eventually European populations and social structures recovered. The tropical environment was an inhibitor to Maya recovery.

The nearest predictive model is one developed by the Club of Rome. This computer simulation created in the 1960s is predicated on a continuation of exponential growth in five fields: population, food production, pollution, use of non-renewable resources and industrialization. If these are not controlled, the study concludes, shortly after the year 2000 there will be a series of famines, wars, plagues and other dire events. The simplified version of the model by Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens, The Limits to Growth, was published in 1974. This was the year after the model for the collapse of Maya civilization appeared in The Classic Maya Collapse (Eds. Willey and Shimkin 1973). Note that the independently derived and developed scenarios overlap nearly completely except for industrialization which was not a feature of Maya culture. The correction of a statistical error in the Club of Rome study gives our generation a few more years beyond the year 2000 before disaster hits. A recent restudy done by the same scholars finds that the globe is, unfortunately, on track toward the dismal predicted consequences. Whether this is an apocalyptic vision that can be avoided, or is so flawed as to be useless is a still debated issue. The Maya suffered from problems that are startlingly similar to those today, and they unquestionably suffered a collapse. However, lessons from history (or prehistory) are usually inconvenient and painful to deal with and easy to ignore.

The Maya have always been an intellectually interesting people and culture. Studies of their remains reward one with examples of great architecture and art as well as great craftsmanship. They also may provide practical information on matters such as long-term, "sustainable" intensive tropical agriculture. They are not as unusual as once thought, nor as attractive. No longer can we visualize them as ". . . high church Anglicans singing evensong in their temples . . ." as one romantic suggested. Neither was they the mad, blood-obsessed, ritual-and-drug-crazed people that another group seems to believe. We can visit the descendants of the Maya today in their villages, where they live cheerfully, for the most part, dealing with the legacy of both their prehistoric past and that of the 500 years of disasters and changes visited upon them by European contact and conquest. They are survivors in every sense of the word. In science as in general life, it is necessary to discard illusions for success and even survival. The archaeological pursuit of the Maya will always provide intellectual satisfaction and, with care, can lead to greater insights into the nature of cultural evolution. For the thoughtful, it can provide valuable insights into contemporary events and recent history.

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