May 22, 2012
As the class prepares to visit a cacao farm tomorrow to better acquaint ourselves with Mayan culture, a staple worth some serious discussion is the cacao seed. That being said, disregard any impulsive image of the ancient Maya as living in a chocolate-filled paradise a la Willy Wonka’s fantastical chocolate factory. But all the same, to say that the ancient Maya were a society of chocoholics may not be so far from the truth. In the words of archeologist Keith Prufer, the ancient Maya regarded cacao as “an intimate ritual product implicated in areas of social identity and reproduction that transcend economic and political status” (Prufer & Hurst 2007).
As Prufer explains in his article published in association with the Hershey Food Technical Center, entitled “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death,” the cacao seed held a diverse set of connotations for the Maya. On one hand, cacao was an integral instrument in transitioning the individual from one stage of life to the next (birth, initiation, marriage, etc.). But at the same time, archeologists also believe that cacao acted as a sort of Mayan currency, as a luxury beverage ingredient for societal elites, and as an occupational tool which Mayan shamans utilized when performing rituals (Prufer & Hurst 2007). All in all, cacao took a prominent but complex position in Mayan society, making it a topic worth close analysis as the class looks toward encountering descendants of the very people who held it in such esteem.
Prufer’s paper proves a particularly interesting discussion of cacao as it explains the seed’s function facilitating the Mayan relationship with the underground realm of the divine. As the Maya saw it, human life followed a cyclical construction, rising from the land at birth and returning to the land at death. In turn, cacao was seen as mediating human interaction with the earth by being present both at birth and at death (Prufer & Hurst 2007). However, it is the latter event which archeologists like Prufer are most concerned with as the cacao seeds included in cave burials can preserve until modern discovery, like those in the Bats’ub Cave of southwestern Belize. As Prufer explains, this cacao may have been included in burials as a type of sustenance for the deceased’s journey, or perhaps as a form of entry payment to the afterlife (Prufer & Hurst 2007). Either way, cacao facilitated the connection between the mortal surface world and the divine underground realm, and in this way the Maya regarded the seed as necessary for a proper life cycle.
Still, I find it most interesting that the reason why the cacao seed of all objects received such elevated status from the Maya remains a mystery to researchers. It would seem that the Maya could have assigned such sanctity to other natural objects that seemed to connect the mortal surface world with the divine underworld. Consider water, a natural resource following a cycle much like the Mayan human lifecycle. In the same way that the Maya believed humans to emerge from and then return to the ground, so did water come up to the Earth’s surface in Mayan cenotes and soak into the ground as rainfall. As such, water effectively exemplifies that strong parallels can be drawn between the Mayan worldview and other natural items besides cacao, leaving one to speculate which of the seed’s qualities led to its characterization as an elite good.
As it were, other scholarly analyses provide a wealth of claims as to why cacao rather than another natural resource like water may have developed into a Mayan cultural staple. For one, cacao pulp could be fermented into a chocolate drink called chicha, a status good reserved for Mayan elites given its decadence and for shamans because of its mind-altering ability. Lavish chocolate foods were also prepared by elites using cacao, further associating luxurious and sacred connotations with the seed (Henderson 2007). Cacao had its appeals even from a pragmatic perspective, for it is easily transported and preserved. Granted, these scholarly claims remain somewhat speculative, but they nonetheless beginto illuminate why cacao may have first come to maintain elevated status among the Maya.
But in closing, perhaps our own trip to the Mayan homeland will serve to temporally contextualize these mysteries surrounding the cacao. That is, while a great deal of the seed’s original ancient significance may be lost, the relationship between the Maya and cacao has continued to evolve over the millennia. In fact, Prufer goes on to track some of this evolution in his discussion of extant documentary sources from the years following European settlement of the Yucatán (Prufer & Hurst 2007). As such, perhaps observing the modern role of cacao in the lives of Mayan descendants will help further complete our understanding of the dynamic and long-standing relationship between seed and man. And if it so happens along the way I have to taste some cacao first-hand, then I suppose I will have no choice but to partake in the name of scholarship.
Henderson JS, Joyce RA, Hall GR, Hurst WJ, & McGovern PE (2007) Chemical and archaeological evidencefor the first cacao beverage. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 48:18937-18940.
Prufer K, & Hurst WJ (2007) Chocolate in the underworld space of death: Cacao seeds from an early Classic mortuary cave. Ethnohistory, 54:273–301.
Sean Drake is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio. As a double-major in Classics and Environmental Studies, his main interest is the intersection of ancient civilizations and the environment. As a result, he is interested in the link between the native Maya and their homeland. On the side, Sean loves to scuba dive as well as run as captain on the USC Marathon Team. He hopes to one day pursue a career in coastal management.
May 18, 2012
The Maya, a Mesoamerican society considered the most advanced Native American civilization of its time, began a complex development around 2000 B.C. Divided into two main periods, Preclassic and Classic, the Mayans underwent a relatively abrupt collapse between 750-900 A.D., known as the Terminal Classic. The cause of rapid decline of such an intricately developed people has since been a topic of interest. One theory in particular is growing increasingly irrefutable: climate change. In 2007, James W. Webster et al., used stalagmite evidence from the Macal Chasm, a cave in Belize, to demonstrate that climate change, specifically drought, may have played an integral role in the Maya demise.
Stalagmites are formations resultant from the dripping of mineralized solutions into caves through the overlying soil and subsequent deposit of calcium carbonate. Because of the CO2 present in the atmosphere, rainwater is naturally acidic, and thus dissolves calcium carbonate when percolating through calcium carbonate rich soils. Upon entering a cave, water’s concentration of calcium carbonate is so high that some precipitates out when the water drips through the cave, forming stalagmites. Webster et al. used several proxy factors from stalagmites to indicate the climate in Belize during which the stalagmite sample was formed, including reflectance, color, and luminescence of the sample, as well as carbon and oxygen isotopic records.
Luminescence “is produced by organic acids and so is related to productivity in the soil and vegetation cover above the cave [ . . . ] as a proxy for availability of moisture” (Webster et al. 9). The particular sample from the Macal Chasm demonstrates long periods of higher luminescence—moisture—with interjecting periods of lower luminescence—drought. Color has a strong correlation with luminescence. Browner color indicates the accumulation of dust on the stalagmite, implying that there was not enough water in the cave to keep the formations free of dust (9). Dryer climates, as indicated by the color measurements, occurred during the same time periods as lower luminescence, indicating drought. Reflectance also correlates to the two aforementioned values, but is a less dependable indicator because calcium carbonate in general does not reflect much light. Combined, however, the three measurements consistently agree on times of more moisture and times of less moisture, and overall suggest several periods of drought that the Maya faced.
Another important variable measured from the stalagmites are the oxygen and carbon isotopic records, which point to different climate indicators. Oxygen isotopic records signify the amount of rainfall at the time of the stalagmite formation. Oxygen has two common isotopes, oxygen-16 and oxygen-18, the latter being heavier. The stalagmite sample used by Webster et al. was very near the entrance of the cave, meaning a higher likelihood of exposure to outside climate conditions. Because of its lower weight, oxygen-16 is more readily evaporated from the stalagmite than oxygen-18, which leaves behind more oxygen-18 and thus a higher value of the oxygen isotope ratio. More evaporation would occur from the stalagmite in drier climates, so a higher isotopic ratio value suggests less rainfall. The carbon isotopic record, on the other hand, indicates the amount of vegetation present over the cave. Three common isotopes of carbon are carbon-12, carbon-13, and carbon-14, with their weights increasing respectively. Vegetation prefers to use the lightest of the three isotopes because capturing it requires the least amount of energy; therefore, a cave covered with large amounts of vegetation, indicative of a generally wetter climate, would have a lower carbon isotopic ratio. Because both isotope ratios are ultimately suggestive of rainfall levels, they are strongly correlated. The Webster et al. data records lower values (wetter climates) and higher values (drier climates) of each isotope ratio during the same time periods. The matching records greatly increase the dependability of the data.
The Webster et al. data for all five of the proxies measured, shown above, demonstrates remarkable levels of agreement for periods of wet and dry climates. Webster et al. identifies 4 significant periods of drought from the data. The first, occurring around 141 A.D., corresponds to the Preclassic Abandonment, which is archaeologically recorded as a cessation of construction in several major Maya locations (2). The next evident drought comes around 517 A.D., which marks the beginning of a period described as the Maya Hiatus, archaeologically recognized as a period with a decrease in the amount of dedication of monuments. The third drought comes as a series at the peak of the Maya Classic Period, when it is thought that the Maya were at their highest population, and thus, extremely dependent on water for agriculture and consequently vulnerable to drought. The droughts ranged from 780-1139 A.D., with the Maya civilization thought to be completely collapsed around 910 A.D. The fourth and final significant drought identified by Webster et al. around 1472 A.D. comes after the Maya Terminal Classic, but is significant for another reason: it was recorded in Maya Books (14). The confirmation of this portion of the data amplifies the reliability of the rest of the data projected on the Maya Preclassic and Classic periods.
While no theory on the Maya collapse is unquestionably conclusive, strong evidence is building that climate change in the form of drought imposed a significant burden on the civilization, given their degree of dependence on rainfall. Though the collapse of the Mayan society was likely a combination of multiple factors, and perhaps a snowball effect of all the factors combined, it is becoming progressively clearer that climate change as a cause should not be dismissed.
Webster, James W., George A. Brook, L. Bruce Railsback, Hai Cheng, R. Lawrence Edwards, Clark Alexander, and Philip P. Reeder. “Stalagmite Evidence from Belize Indicating Significant Droughts at the Time of Preclassic Abandonment, the Maya Hiatus, and the Classic Maya Collapse.”Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 250.1-4 (2007): 1-17. Print.
Sydney MacEwen, an LA native, is an upcoming Junior pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and a minor in Geological Hazards. This is her first trip to Belize. She’s particularly interested in climate change and related policy. She hopes to pursue a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies following her undergraduate education.
May 17, 2012
The Maya civilization lasted from around 2000 B.C. until the arrival of the Spanish to Mesoamerica in the 16th century. It extended throughout the northern part of Central America, including all of present-day Guatemala and Belize as well as parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and southern Mexico. The Maya are known for their artful iconography, monumental architecture (frequently visited by tourists), sophisticated mathematical/astronomical systems, and having the only known writing system in the prehistoric Americas. Despite its many strengths and centuries of flourishing, the Maya civilization experienced a total collapse that is worth examining as a lesson for present civilizations.
Maya history has been divided into three periods: Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Classic period is considered to be the height of Maya civilization in terms of population, monumental building, and kingship. It begins around A.D. 250 and lasts until around A.D. 909, the last known date on any Maya monument. In addition to the cessation of building, we also see a dramatic decline in population at the end of the Classic period: between 90 and 99% of the population disappears after A.D. 800. Cities are completely deserted and in many cases reclaimed by the jungle, where they remain hidden to the outside world until rediscovery in the 19th century.
Like many ancient civilizations around the globe, the Maya rulers liked to tout their power and authority by building palaces and monuments with inscriptions that were solely concerned with kings and nobles and functioned to reinforce their might. Most of the writing that comes down to us today is in the form of this kind of propaganda, as well as a limited number of books containing astronomical tables which they used to predict celestial events and keep track of time. The royal inscriptions include these Long Count calendar dates, which are useful for tracking the development and decline of monumental architecture associated with the Classic Maya peak and collapse.
Unlike many ancient civilizations across the globe, and particularly the Inca in western South America, the Maya do not constitute a single empire. Maya governance consisted of polities (small hierarchical states) ruled by kings, which usually consisted of a capital city and smaller neighboring towns, although some polities extended over larger areas and exerted control over smaller polities in something like a mini-empire. Any dreams of more extensive conquest, however, were crushed by limitations of agricultural production and food supply—also thought to be a major factor in the Maya collapse.
Maya agricultural production consisted mainly of corn, grown on fields that were made by clearing and burning parts of the forest. Slash-and-burn (or swidden) agriculture, as it is called, results in fields that can be farmed for up to a few years before the soil becomes exhausted of nutrients. After this time, the field must be left fallow for fifteen to twenty years, during which wild vegetation has a chance to grow back and recharge the soil. Although other farming techniques were also used in an attempt to increase productivity, these efforts were not enough to offset the strain on food supply caused by high population demand. Even in periods of abundance, corn could not be stored for more than a year because of humidity. The limited food supply made long-distance travel difficult, limiting communication across polities as well as the possibility of sustaining large military campaigns that would be necessary for empire building. The mismanagement of these resources on local and state levels would eventually contribute to the undermining of an entire civilization.
In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond identifies five “strands” constituting the Classic Maya collapse.
- The first of these is the outstripping of available resources by population growth. In order to accommodate rising numbers, farmers used up all of the available land and often did not wait for the fields to fallow, which ultimately led to lower yields of poor quality.
- The second strand is also a direct consequence of land overuse: deforestation and hillside erosion. Fewer trees meant less water evaporating from leaves into the atmosphere, which leads to less rain and the possibility of drought. And without tree roots holding the soil down in place, the nutrient-carrying top layer was much more prone to being swept away and deposited in hillside watersheds, causing a reduction in the amount of useable farmland when what they needed was just the opposite.
- Fewer resources meant increased fighting. Diamond gives the analogy of trying to cram 5 million people into an area smaller than the state of Colorado. There were wars between separate kingdoms over claims to limited resources as well as fighting within a kingdom. Disgruntled subjects who had supported the lifestyle and building projects of the royal court, all on the divinely-based promise of rain and prosperity, lost faith and turned on their rulers.
- Making matters worse was the inevitability of climate change. Although the Maya had lived through several droughts before, the drought that came at the end of the Classic period was the most prolonged and severe. The landscape was fully saturated with inhabitants at this time, making escape to the few areas that still had reliable water supplies an unfeasible solution.
- The fifth strand is the failure of the kings and nobles to perceive and solve these problems. They seemed to have been more concerned with erecting monuments and waging wars than recognizing long-term issues and learning from past environmental events. The lack of communication between polities prevented any large-scale efforts toward a common solution.
After the Classic collapse, Maya civilization never returned to its former capacity or modes of operation. The remaining population dispersed across the region and was eventually subdued by the Spanish. The Maya people never fully disappeared, and persist to this day in southern Mexico and Central America where they constitute a diverse range of cultural identities.
Michelle Lim is a rising senior from Queens, NY, currently double-majoring in Narrative Studies and Interdisciplinary Archaeology at USC. She is interested in the cultural systems, thoughts, and stories of the (near & distant) past, especially the ways in which they inform and enrich our present. In the future, Michelle would like to pursue nonfiction writing for topics including science and social commentary.
Stepping off of the plane, as a wave of humidity hit my face, my first thought was “I love my major.” It was May 2011 and I had just breathed Belizean air for the first time. The country was in a state of drought, with an aftertaste of smoke in the air from the many spot wildfires covering the country, but for a Southern California native used to the desiccated air of the desert, it was an absolute sauna. I silently expressed gratitude to Environmental Studies, my parents, and even myself for taking this opportunity to visit a foreign, unfamiliar land. Adventure awaited in this diverse landscape.
The following 11 days are still burned in my memory with photographic detail. The sights: remote Maya ruins, pristine caves, dense jungle. The food: never have I seen so many interesting and delicious combinations of rice, beans, and chicken. I was introduced to cacao and as a seasoned coffee addict, I instantly fell in love with the bitter, textured and highly caffeinated drink. Our accommodations were incredible; the Sun Creek Lodge cabanas were the ideal way to sleep in the open air without surrendering ourselves to the bugs outside. Placencia was a postcard made real, with clear waters, white sand, palm trees and a cool ocean breeze. Outside of the Indiana Jones-style shenanigans on land, I even got an opportunity to indulge my favorite hobby, diving in the Laughing Bird Caye Marine Protected Area. I kept reminding myself that it was technically for course credit. Education has never been more effortless.
After that amazing week and a half, it was difficult to coax myself onto the departure flight. I became immersed in my summer job after the brief period of readjustment and euphoria that follows every journey abroad, wondering if I’d ever be able to return to the land of the Maya. I was overjoyed to see the email from Lisa Collins in my inbox this fall, inviting me to return with the next Belize class as the course TA. Breathlessly replying “YES!,” my mind swam with excitement mixed with a minor dose of anxiety regarding the responsibility that I had just accepted.
Since then, I have graduated and received my degree in Environmental Studies with a Biology emphasis. I am ready to end my USC undergraduate career in a blaze of glory, hiking through jungles, descending deep into massive caves, and diving in one of the most marvelous marine environments on earth, all the time sharing this experience with a group of students seeing these sights for the first time. I’m also eager to share these experiences with the audience reading this blog, as part of this trip’s main appeal is environmental outreach through cultural exchange. We will have experiences to share with Belizeans as their guests and bring knowledge and ideas home to enrich our own educational experience as Trojans. Stay tuned for a chronicle of this adventure.
Dan Killam is a newly minted USC alumni, holding a BS in Environmental Studies. He attended the 2011 Belize course and is returning as the course TA. His duties include maintaining this blog, logistical support and comic relief. He appreciates concise biographies as much as you do.
May 15, 2012
Is this thing still on? I’m here to announce that this blog is officially back in business for the 2012 edition of USC Problems Without Passports: Role of the Environment in the Collapse of Human Societies. As you may remember, the main topic of our study concerns the environmental factors contributing to the collapse of the Classic Maya society, and how those concepts may apply to our global civilization of the present day. We will travel to the beautiful nation of Belize in Central America to investigate these issues in the field. There will be breathless reports from the jungle, descriptions of remote Maya ruins and beautiful Caribbean beaches, with a healthy dose of admiration for the remarkable and diverse cultures of Belize.
Beginning May 20th, we will journey down to and will remain in the country until June 1st. Though we are currently deeply engrossed in the on-campus classroom portion of the course, posts will begin to trickle in soon, including an introductory post from me, the humble Teaching Assistant.
Expect more soon!