May 24, 2012
Continuing our immersion into Belizean culture, we began our second full day abroad by paying a visit to Agouti Cacao Farm. Owned by Eladio Pop, a native to the nearby Mayan village San Pedro Columbia, the farm was a must-see for our class as an excellent example of both sustainable and modern Mayan agriculture, not to mention an opportunity to taste some cacao first-hand. But while the smoky seed did linger in our mouths upon leaving Eladio’s farm and family, it is the man’s refreshing take on agricultural life that I think will accompany us home from Belize.
Equipped with hiking boots and water bottles, we began our visit by following Eladio as he wound about his cacao farm, an area he lovingly characterized as where his “mind and heart move around.” Indeed, the farm itself is worth full description, as it is unlike any I have encountered in the United States. A ten-acre parcel of land nestled within Eladio’s thirty-acre jungle property, Agouti Cacao Farm first appears to be more of a forest than a farm. With diverse plant growth scattered over hills, collected within valleys, and framed by winding streams, the area exemplifies “organic” agriculture in the purest sense. In stark contrast to the predominant homogeneity of American agriculture, Eladio annually harvests mangos, Jamaican limes, avocados, bread fruit, bananas, and many other fruits right among his staple crop, the cacao seed. Yet, with no need for chemicals or machinery, the farmer finds his work quite manageable. Armed with only a machete, Eladio’s work consists primarily of clearing, pruning, and planting. As for the rest, he believes that nature has a way of looking after itself.
Herein lies the genius of Agouti Cacao Farm. It became clear as we talked with Eladio during the tour and afterward at his house that his seemingly unconventional approach to growing cacao is not merely a product of modern Mayan agricultural pragmatism. For also in a larger sense, Eladio grows cacao in a way that also encapsulates his modern Mayan spirituality. In fact, his most memorable addresses to us concerned how he views his relationship with the cacao in a spiritual context. As he sees it, the cacao tree is not something to control, something to raise and destroy at the whim of one’s personal concern. Instead, it is something to be cared for and attended to as a piece of divine creation, even if that means breaking from the slash-and-burn ways of his Mayan ancestors. In this way, Eladio defines his stewardship to the cacao tree as stewardship to God, that task which he feels is his own divine “calling.” Farming the cacao, then, far transcends familial sustenance and becomes a spiritual exercise, a “labor of love” in which Eladio personally finds himself closer to God. Just as the cacao provides the farmer with physical nourishment, so does its cultivation provide him with spiritual nourishment.
With this relationship between the agricultural and the spiritual in mind, being able to eat and drink the cacao with Eladio was special to our class for far greater reasons than its delicious taste. Being able to share this experience so intimately with Eladio provided us with an understanding of the relationship between at least one modern Mayan and his cacao that academic writing could never adequately communicate. Furthermore, in the context of our class, our visit to Agouti Cacao Farm brought us one step closer to understanding the relationship between modern Belizeans and their environment.
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 23, 2012
Dr. Gregory Haug and colleagues raised a question: “does climate make history?” in their 2003 paper they presented scientific evidence that supported the theory that drought due to climate change caused the collapse of the Maya civilization. Unexpectedly, everyone has their own unique answer to the open-ended question and I will attempt to explain my thought process and my final answer.
History can be defined as a study of past events and by this definition, anything, including climate can make history because it has the ability to influence individuals who can observe, examine and record the climate. Additionally, climate can make history because of its ability to leave physical evidence of its presence or change in a variety of ways. There is no question that climate has physically affected the earth is more ways than one; however, we as scientists, still struggle to find the most accurate and definitive method to represent climate in the past. Haug, et al. 2003 successfully draws a proxy, where they utilize a new method for the measuring bulk sediment chemistry; therefore, developing a substantial record of river-derived inputs to the Cariaco Basin.
The Cariaco Basin is located off northern Venezuela and the sediments of this basin are considered a superior proxy to other paleoclimate proxies. It provides an excellent comparison to the ancient Mayan climate and environment because the basin shares the same climate regime as the center of the Maya civilization. Additionally, the Caricao basin is anoxic, which preserves most of the sediment as it were thousands of years ago during the peak of Maya civilization. The anoxic environment also prevents any small organisms from burrowing in the sediment and disturbing the deposition pattern. The Cariaco basin is an ideal location because of its detailed resolution. Scientists are able to gather data at a bimonthly resolution, which makes analysis and comparison much more accurate as there is significantly more evidence to support their claims.
So how exactly does climate make history? Climate can leave physical evidence and data for an extended amount of time, allowing scientists to determine exactly what and how the climate was during that period. The primary method of data collection in the Cariaco basin is measuring for titanium content in the sediment. Haug explains that the light and dark laminations preserved in the sediments of the Cariaco basin are the direct result of significant regional changes in climate due to the seasonal shifts in the position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Light colored laminae deposit biogenic compounds during the dry upwelling season during the winter and the spring when the ITCZ is the its southernmost position, making trades winds stronger.
Uniquely, individual dark laminae are extremely rich in terrigenous grains and contain a significant amount of titanium. Their interpretation of the titanium content in soil suggests that they can determine the regional hydrologic changes and variations of the mean ITCZ with time in comparison to the Holocene Cariaco record. Similarly, the light laminae have significantly less titanium levels, which suggest a dryer climate at that time period. Haug et al defined very clear parameters towards what the data represented. Dark laminae and higher titanium levels indicated increased water levels as they are deposited during the wet rainy season when the ITCZ is located in the most northerly position, almost directly over the actual basin. On the other hand, light laminae and lower titanium levels suggested lower water levels due to biogenic components that were deposited during the dry upwelling season when the ITCZ is at its southernmost position and there are significantly stronger trade winds along the coast of Venezuela. The connection between rainfall and river sediment input is recorded in the laminated nature of the sediments in the Cariaco Basin. Paired laminations in the sediments are produced by large changes in wind and rainfall due to seasonal changes caused by the position of the ITCZ and its convective activity; therefore, if the ITCZ fails to migrate north then the basin and its surrounding areas will be experience drought due to trade winds.
The well-defined and strict boundaries of the data comparison further strengthen the proxy. Simply put, scientists are able to identify within a bi-monthly scale, the climate, moisture levels and water availability in the center of the Maya civilization during ancient times.
Ultimately, Haug was able to conclude with the help of the data he has gathered that the Maya civilization became too ambitious after a period of productivity and abundant rainfall from AD 550 to AD 750 and that their population expanded way past the land’s carrying capacity; therefore, when a drought occurred, there was not enough water left to sustain the population. As seen in the image below, the evidence supports the theory that megadroughts were one of the causes behind the collapse of the Maya civilization. Additionally, it is arguable that the data provided is significantly substantial and conclusive because other data such as independent paleoclimatic data from similar areas like Lake Valencia and Lake Titicaca, can be criticized for being too vague or showing the natural variability of climate; however, the image clearly shows that the sediments from the Cariaco basin which had the least amount of titanium correlate with other proxies when there was low rainfall, suggesting the presence of light colored laminae instead of dark colored laminae. It is not that the laminae are light but that low Ti means that there is low rainfall, less runoff.
In conclusion, Haug poses an interesting question as to if climate can in fact write history. I firmly believe that climate can because of the abundance of physical evidence that we have found but we see how climate can greatly influence an entire civilization, which creates events that are worthy of being called history.
Britanny Cheng is an incoming junior at the University of Southern California where she is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. She attributes her love for the environment to her upbringing in the Philippines where she was exposed daily to the ocean, inspiring her to become a certified advanced water diver, specializing in night dives. In the future, she plans on hopefully research diving for a living whilst increasing awareness for the implementation of marine reserves in the Philippine waters.
May 22, 2012
After a 5-hour van ride from Belize City airport, we arrived late last night at Sun Creek Lodge (outside the town of Punta Gorda) where we will be staying until next Monday. Our digs consist of open-air cabañas planted in the middle of what looks like pure jungle, complete with all of the bustle you would expect to come with one—little frogs, swarms of leaf-cutter ants, tarantulas and moths with wingspans bigger than your hand. Sean even had the opportunity to get intimate with a particular spider, making face contact with an impressively thick web that could easily rival any work of Charlotte’s.
Early this morning we set out for the village of Barranco, accessible only by a bumpy dirt road with puddles that splash up against the van as it rattles its way along. Our guide Bruno, a soft-spoken expat from Germany, handles the 1-hour drive with acclimated ease as we pass through thatch-roofed villages and slash-and-burnt fields. Nearing Barranco, Bruno points out a small, concrete structure with the words “Medic Post” and “U.S. Capital Energy” painted on the front in big black letters.
We finally stop in front of a one-story house made of wooden planks and topped by tin. The door opens and Alvin, our local guide, comes out to meet us. Alvin is a Garifuna local who was born in Barranco and, apart from extensive traveling (reflected in his eloquent manner and worldly perspective), has lived there his entire life. The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) are descendents of Carib, Arawak, and West African peoples who converged on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century and struggled repeatedly against colonization by the French and British. After Britain gained control of the island in 1763, many Garinagu sought refuge along the eastern coast of Central America. Barranco is one of the communities that formed on the coast of Belize, with a current population of 160.
Alvin walks us over to the small bluff next to the ocean that inspired Barranco’s original name, Red Cliff, though the distinctive red clay is now covered over by vegetation and the cliffs have significantly receded. The coast is experiencing heavy erosion, the effects of which are clearly visible even within Alvin’s lifetime. They try to keep it at bay by planting coconut trees and rubber tires; perfect rings of Goodyear moss whimsically dot the sandbar. Alvin also points out the mangroves that shield the coast from the full impact of hurricanes, and, as we head back into the village, the plants that provide their herbal remedies. These include the cola nut, which induces vomiting in case of food poisoning, and the piss-a-bed, which deals with urinary tract-related issues.
Continuing through Barranco we pass by an orange-and-white tower of monolithic proportions, easily the tallest structure for miles around. The cell phone tower, recently installed by U.S. Capital Energy, has enabled more efficient means of communication both within the village and with their relatives abroad. But this comes at a cost. U.S. Capital arrived in Barranco three years ago to begin seismic testing for oil extraction in the Sarstoon/Temash National Forest, which borders the village. They were given the okay by the Belizean government, who established the national park and controls all operations within it. When the park was first set up, there were strict rules banning fishing, planting, and harvesting. This came as a surprise to the Garinagu, who had depended on the area’s resources for hundreds of years. Now it was being offered up for the possibility of oil drilling.
Alvin’s views on development are ambivalent and I get the sense that he doesn’t want to discuss it further than acknowledging that “progress brings problems.” He speaks appreciatively of the cultural, intellectual, and economic exchange that modern development has made possible. He also cherishes Garinagu culture and is so clearly passionate about sharing and preserving it (he told us it was his calling). The two shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. But in a hierarchical world of infinite competing interests, and especially a country as diverse as Belize, the people most affected by big decisions tend to be the last ones consulted.
We come upon a garbage dump at the southern edge of the village where the jungle starts to encroach and swallow up the trash. “We haven’t figured out the best way to deal with the garbage,” Alvin says. “Us either,” Dan tells him. After a visit to the Barranco cultural museum, which is a single room packed with photos, traditional clothing, Garifuna texts and handmade tools for processing cassava—a labor of love, according to Alvin—our tour concludes at the village’s spiritual house. Here he tells us about the spiritual healing ceremonies that occur something like every 1-2 years, events that must be precipitated by a spiritual calling from the ancestors (as in a dream or sign) and then attended by the entire extended family. It is a way to resolve spiritual illness as well as a reason for people who have left Barranco to come back and be reunited with their family and roots once again.
It’s refreshing to hear Alvin explain his understanding of spirituality and how it has served him and others in great ways. As a non-religious person by habit, I appreciate living affirmations that the worldview that I’m used to is not the only one that works. We found it interesting that the Roman Catholic institution in Belize, which had originally banned drumming and dancing in the churches as pagan worship, changed its mind after coming to the decision that the Garinagu were just using a different means to the same end. They are the only Christian denomination in Belize that allows it.
At the end of our trip, we got to dance with some of the drummers and singers, including Alvin’s aunt and “brother from another mother.” Awkwardly, at first—okay, it was mostly awkward, all of us trying to shake our hips to an impossibly fast beat—but you can’t deny the entertainment value there. As Alvin likes to say: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
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 in the ways they inform and enrich our present. In the future, Michelle would like to pursue nonfiction writing on topics involving science, history and social commentary.
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!
June 6, 2011
The PWP Belize program was one of the first perks of the Environmental Studies program that I heard about upon declaring my major mid-Freshman year. Originally taught by Kevin Cannariato – who happened to be my ENST 100 professor at the time – I heard mention of this class time and time again. And what better way to earn four units of credit toward my major than to travel to Central America for an educational vacation of sorts? My heart was set on taking the class from the get-go, but my own schedule did not allow for me to take it until the summer after my junior year, Lisa Collins’s first year taking over the class. (And I loved the class so much, I even used it as the topic for my ITP final project.) Little did I know that I would have the opportunity to come back and TA the class after graduation – and a lot certainly changed, even in the short amount of time between the 2010 and 2011 trips.
One of the first differences I noticed, as soon as we stepped off our American Airlines flight at the Belize City airport, was that the heat and humidity seemed less intense than last year. I remembered it hitting like a wall last time, although I couldn’t be sure if I was just remembering the experience incorrectly. But as we started on our long (very, very long) drive from the airport toward the Toledo district in Southern Belize, the smell of smoke was hard to ignore. Our host, Bruno, later mentioned that Belize had been experiencing a drought recently, and that these were some of the worst wildfires he had seen in his fifteen years living in the country. An unfortunate turn of events for the country, this did give the students a bit of firsthand knowledge to emphasize the important role of droughts in the stability of a civilization, as brought up during our many collapse discussions.
This year, as TA, one of my most daunting (in my opinion) duties was to serve as a van driver. At home, I am used to paved roads, Los Angeles potholes, and my compact Toyota, so the thought of driving a hulking van through dirt roads was at least mildly intimidating. Admittedly, though, this was actually one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is something a bit freeing about driving in an area completely devoid of traffic. Plus, my student DJs and the fantastic views on our commute to the Santa Cruz school made the drive all the more enjoyable. Once the Santa Cruz kids took to scribbly out dusty messages on our van’s rear windows, it became a nice reminder of the unique nature of the trip.
The “dirt roads” I had been expecting from last year were amped up this time around, though, as Belize is constructing a highway that will go to Guatemala. Construction in Belize is a bit different from what we picture in the United States. I essentially shared the road with heavy machinery, which were usually busy crushing down rocks into a consistency more befitting a dirt highway. Construction safety workers would gesture me forward through narrow passes, as if I had any other choice than the one they suggested (it’s hard to get lost in Belize, despite the lack of street signs, as there aren’t a whole lot of alternate roads to take). We also were required to stop at several random police/military checkpoints (always at the same intersection, though) which were usually uneventful, but on occasions when they were well-armed, somewhat intimidating. We were told this is to prevent the proliferation of drug trafficking from neighboring countries – an effort we suspect will not be made any easier through the construction of a road to Guatemala.
Much of the trip this year was familiar, though. Staying at Sun Creek Lodge with Bruno for the first leg of our journey was a pleasure (fleas and scorpions aside). We revisited Yok Balum Cave, Rio Blanco, Blue Creek, Uxbenka, and Punta Gorda. The hike to Yok Balum Cave is infamous in the PWP Belize trip for being a daunting hike, but this year I found it tremendously easier than the year before. (I still can’t decide if this was due to the milder weather, improved fitness on my part, or an inaccurate memory of the hike the year before.) Rio Blanco also reflected the year’s droughts, with the river hardly showing much sign of the waterfall we saw in 2010. On the other hand, though, the lowered water levels allowed us to swim much further into the cave at Blue Creek, eventually arriving at a fantastic waterfall at the end of our swim – an area that was inaccessible the year before.
However, some of our newest additions to the class provided us with some of the most memorable experiences of the trip: visiting Eladio Pop’s cacao farm, and participating in the service learning project at Tumil K’in and Santa Cruz. Easily one of my favorite parts of visiting Belize this year, the children were so much fun to work with, and everyone at the schools showed us incredible hospitality.
One thing was very familiar, though – at the end of the trip, everyone was faced with a very bittersweet goodbye. While I think everyone was ready for their own familiar beds back in the United States (and probably ready to wake up in the morning without need for DEET), leaving Placencia was hard, as everyone had their own aspects of Belize that would be missed the most: a testament not only to how great Belize is, but also to what a wonderful opportunity the Problems without Passports program offers to USC students.
ENST grad student
Class of 2012
May 31, 2011
While I was immediately excited when I was told that I would have the opportunity to dive at Laughing Bird Caye while the other students snorkeled, I was also slightly hesitant. Though I’ve been trained by the best, having participated in last year’s Environmental Studies PWP program in Guam and Palau, I also haven’t ever dove with people I didn’t know. My teachers were USC faculty, and I’ve always jumped off the dock with a group of classmates that I’ve grown to know very well. But those fears soon dissipated when I started watching videos online of what I could expect. The Belize Barrier Reef is one of the largest, healthiest reef systems in the world, with 300 continuous kilometers of coral creating a truly breathtaking sight, visible from space. A huge variety of living things reside in this highly productive ecosystem, and when I suited up and jumped into the 80 degree water, I knew that I had made the right decision. Visibility was nearly perfect, and the light blue world stretched out for me to explore.
Hiking through the forests of Belize is an amazing experience, with so many wonders hiding under the canopy. But nothing can quite replicate the feeling of weightlessly floating through a healthy reef, with soft corals gently swaying in the current and fish going about their busy lives. A reef is a lot like a human city, with both grand vistas and fascinating details waiting to be observed. Great hulking brain corals stand out like monuments, while in the crevices of the underlying coral, tiny shrimp coexist with giant, 3-foot long spiny lobsters. They glared at me indignantly from their hiding places, as if reminding me that I was in a marine protected area, and I responded by playfully tweaking the tips of their antennae. Garden eels waved like blades of grass in the distance, withdrawing into their burrows as I approached. Lionfish fearlessly watched me approach, secure in the midst of their painful spines. Though they are an invasive species, it does not diminish their beauty. A large pufferfish gazed at me curiously with its humongous, expressive eyes. A school of snapper passed by my side and I admired the effortless way they glided through the water, feeling like a very clumsy landlubber in comparison. I had a brief hope that we would see a whale shark, which are known to follow snapper, feeding on their spawn, but that will have to remain an entry on my bucket list for the time being. All of the inhabitants of the ocean aren’t lined up, waiting to present their glory to every passing diver.
But that’s part of what makes diving a hobby which I want to maintain for life. Every time I cross the barrier between our world and the one under the sea, I feel the same rush of adrenaline as I begin my descent down to the bottom. Every dive holds new experiences, and it inspires a sense of humility in a land-evolved creature like myself. We humans are merely island-dwellers on a great blue ocean planet, and a lot of the environmental problems we have would disappear if we kept that fact in mind.