May 25, 2012
Lubaantun were the first ruins that our group encountered and despite the long hot trek we had before this particular visit, we were all excited to finally witness the famous Mayan ruins. Due to the on and off light showers, the ground was exceptionally muddy, which made it a challenge to not slip and slide down the hill. The first thing I noticed about the site was that there was an unbelievably steep hill that we had to climb up. It looked almost impossible for us to come back down the same hill without slipping on the mud. Bruno, our German banker turned tour guide and all-around-expert on Belize mentioned that the center of the site is artificially elevated between two small rivers, which is an excellent military defense strategy. This might suggest that the ruins are evidence of some sort of Mayan military camp or fortress.
During the tour of the ruins, Bruno mentioned two things that made the site a unique location unlike the other ruins around the area. Firstly, the sight is infamous for being the location where Anna Mitchell-Hedges allegedly discovered a crystal skull. This has been long debated because of the lack of physical evidence as well as conflicting personal accounts of her father’s colleagues. Dr. Thomas Gann who is credited to be the first academic to investigate the site accompanied her father, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Besides the actual skull and the testimonies of both F.A. and Anna Mitchell-Hedges, there has been no other evidence to support their claims that the skull was actually found in Lubaantun. Additionally, there has been no reported tombs or even human sacrifices in the site; therefore, the presence of such an artifact is unlikely.
The name Lubaantun means ‘place of fallen stones’ in Mayan, which I believe describes the site’s physical appearance quite well. The site is believed to have been occupied during the Maya Classic era; however, it displays uncommon and unusual architecture for its location and time period. Lubaatun is known to have buildings that are built from large black slate blocks that are laid with little to no mortar. Furthermore, several structures are evenly stacked like stairs until the finished building resembles a pyramid. It is impressive to see that some buildings have stood the test of time and are still standing despite the lack of mortar; however, the Belizean government have attempted the rehabilitation certain buildings by rebuilding them. Bruno pointed out which areas were original and which were rebuilt. I understand why the government would opt to rebuild such buildings because it would look more aesthetically pleasing to see a more complete and cohesive site; however, I believe that the government should work more towards preserving the site as it to stay true to its name as the ‘place of fallen stones’.
Above: interactive panorama of Lubaantun from Dan Killam’s 2011 trip to Belize
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 ocean. This inspired her to become a certified advanced water diver where she specializes 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 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.