May 25, 2012
As is widely known, the Mayan people saw a significant loss in population starting around AD 770. There is no conclusive evidence indicating one specific cause of this collapse; most likely, it was a combination of several contributing factors. Centuries later, Mesoamerica faced another widespread population decline in the 1500s. Again, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint what caused this occurrence. The data indicate that disease may have been a causative factor in the Maya collapse, though the identity of the disease itself is a mystery due to the lack of preserved human remains. However, data indicates that there were extended droughts occurring in the years leading up to both of these crashes in population. In addition, there is evidence that the sixteenth century population decline was caused primarily by a hemorrhagic fever that was likely associated with the drought. Because of the similarities between the long drought and following population decline, it is possible that an increase in disease similar to what was seen in 16th century Mesoamerica was also the cause of the collapse of the Mayan people.
The Maya were once a highly successful and advanced people with a number of large cities and an impressive population. They developed their culture over several thousand years leading up to their most prosperous years from AD 250 to 750, which is known as the Classic Period. Then, around AD 770, the Maya culture began to disintegrate; towns and cities were vacated, the production of fine art declined, and trade and construction decreased. The great city of Teotihuacan also fell during this time period, known as the Terminal Classic. Other large cities were soon deserted as well; this trend continued until almost all the major city centers were abandoned by AD 950. There is no evidence supporting any single explanation for this dramatic population loss. The severe decrease may have been caused by decline in agriculture, social or political issues, or natural causes such as drought to name a few. Whatever the cause, it is certain that the Maya civilization had collapsed.
Several hundred years later, the same region witnessed another significant loss in population. While there were, again, several possible factors influencing this decline, there is one explanation for a great majority of the deaths that occurred during the 1500s. A hemorrhagic fever, which was called Cocoliztli, ravaged through Mesoamerica. Two epidemics of Cocoliztli, occurring in 1545 and 1576 respectively, killed a total of 13 million people. The origins of this devastating disease remain unknown, but it is known that it worked quickly and effectively, as it was almost always fatal. Symptoms ranged from headache and fever to dementia, nodule formation, and bleeding from all orifices before eventual death. Interestingly, the more severe symptoms of Cocoliztli only affected the native inhabitants of Mesoamerica; it was this population that faced such high mortality. This deadly disease resulted in a population collapse that was comparable in severity to the occurrences of the Terminal Classic Period.
While there are obvious differences between the collapses during the Terminal Classic Period and the sixteenth century, both occurred during similar environmental conditions. Evidence indicates that during the years before both population declines, the region was facing a period of severe drought. As indicated by data from tree rings, a long drought happened from AD 700 to AD 900 that stretched as far north as the Southwestern United States. The tree ring data also revealed that there were some periods of rain during the drought. There were similar brief wet periods during the drought of the sixteenth century; these occurred around 1545 and 1576, which coincides with both of the Cocoliztli outbreaks. The deadly outbreaks seem to be a result of the conditions of a wet period occurring during a drought.
While there is no full explanation for either the Terminal Classic or sixteenth century population collapses, there is data to show that the drought conditions during both times were very similar. Both declines were set during long, severe droughts that were broken up by short, wet periods. The specific conditions that resulted in the Cocoliztli outbreaks in the sixteenth century were therefore also present during the collapse of the Maya. The repetition of these similar and unique conditions therefore seems to indicate the possibility of Cocoliztli outbreaks during the Terminal Classic Period, which may have contributed to the significant population decline. Given the millions of deaths that the fever outbreaks caused in a relatively short span, it does seem possible that Cocoliztli could have also caused the similarly rapid and severe loss of the Mayan people. Although we would need more sound evidence to be certain, an outbreak of the deadly Cocoliztli disease may provide an explanation for the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
In order to thoroughly understand societal collapse, it is important to explore the idea that, often times, the “nail in the coffin” for many societies is a bad decision, or collection of bad decisions, that the society itself makes. Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist, argues in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, that believing any society willingly depletes its own natural resources requires the assumption that “these societies sit by and watch the encroaching weakness without taking corrective actions.” He goes on to point out that the inherent purpose of a governmental institution is to counter societal fluctuations that negatively impact productivity, and that it is “curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions they are equipped to circumvent.” It does not intuitively make sense that any society would intentionally sabotage its own success or well-being, perhaps because the pathways to poor decision-making are often convoluted and unclear. Naturally, no two societal collapses would mirror one another, both for cultural and geographical differences; there is no single answer as to why societies make decisions that undermine their own achievement and stability. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond attempts to lay a general roadmap of the different circumstances that lead civilizations to disrupt previous prosperity.
The first group of disastrous decisions falls under the broad category of groups failing to anticipate a problem before it arrives. For instance, some societies may not be adequately prepared for extended drought or natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Several different causes are responsible for the failure to foresee an obstacle. First, and most simply, a society may not expect a problem because they have never dealt with the problem before. A society just developing its own agricultural systems has no clear understanding of sustainable farming practices, and conversely their own ability to cause, at least in the short-term, irreversible damage to agricultural land. Diamond notes that decisions under this category are particularly unfortunate because the actions are carried out intentionally (421), with the society completely ignorant of the consequences. Past experience with a problem, however, is not necessarily enough to prevent a society from committing devastating decisions: often times, the last occurrence of such a dilemma is so far in the past as to be forgotten. This is particularly troubling for non-literate societies with no written record of the cause and effect of a particular decision.
Even literate societies may make the same violations. Diamond references the United States’ forgotten recognition of gas guzzling vehicles in the 70’s (422), as we today utilize many fuel-inefficient vehicles (although rising gas prices are beginning to encourage a positive transition). Converse to Tainter’s theory, inability to see a problem coming is one of the primary causes of poor decision making; it is also possible that once the consequences of an action do become apparent, the society may be unaware of how to combat it, especially having never done so before.
Next, Diamond identifies a form of decision-making governed by failure to perceive a problem that has actually arrived. One basic cause of bad decision-making, in this case, is that some problems have completely imperceptible origins or consequences. An example of this idea is soil erosion: often times, there are no visible indicators that soils are becoming nutrient-depleted, so people are not alerted to let the soil fallow in order to recover. Another less obvious example would be modern day global warming; although we have the technology to record minute changes in temperature, society as a whole seems minimally encouraged to lessen the actions responsible for anthropogenic climate change because small temperature changes, though significant to the environment, are nearly undetectable by humans. Another cause of failure to perceive an existent problem is when it is a very slowly changing trend, hidden by fluctuations believed to be naturally occurring, as with temperature change. This phenomenon is known as “creeping normalcy,” because the “baseline standard for what constitutes ‘normalcy’ shifts gradually and imperceptibly” (425). Similarly, another form of creeping normalcy is known as “landscape amnesia.” Landscape amnesia occurs when the appearance of the landscape changes dramatically over a considerable time period, usually multiple decades, and the past landscape is forgotten. This could have been especially problematic in the past when life spans were much shorter, because newer generations would have no record of past landscapes, and thus no understanding that past actions caused the landscapes to change.
Lastly, even once a problem has been perceived, some societies may make no attempt to solve it, for a multitude of possible reasons. Often times, these reasons come in the form of conflicting interests, or in the form of societies rationalizing their inaction in the face of a clear problem. One example, known as “the tragedy of the commons,” is a combination of both factors. The “tragedy of the commons” occurs when multiple parties share a common resource without any regulation about how much of the resource each party can exploit. This leads the individual parties to the mindset that whatever portion of the resource they do not harvest, another of the parties will, so there is no use in employing moderation; effectively, the “tragedy of the commons” is a rationalization for not exercising restraint. Another example of failure to resolve a present problem, an example especially relevant to the Maya, is when “interests of the decision-making elite in power clash with the interests of the rest of society” (430). The Maya kings were typically preoccupied with regional wars and erecting monuments to better their own reputations, leading to inaction about the woes of the commoners. Because of their high status, Maya rulers had little difficulty isolating themselves from the problems, thereby making them dismissible. Often times, religious or moral values are directly inhibitive to a society’s willingness to solve a problem. Diamond refers to the complete deforestation of Easter Island. Although an extremely disastrous decision, the people of Easter Island were religiously motivated to cut down the island’s trees “to obtain logs to transport and erect the giant stone statues,” (432) for which the past society is famous. Finally, failure to address serious problems can result from public opinion that previous warnings were false alarms, or from public dislike for the identifier of the problem.
Diamond makes it abundantly clear that there are endless numbers of pathways that allow or encourage societies to make choices that ultimately contribute to their own demise, whether or not they are aware of the potential consequences. No one reason can be assigned to all societal collapses, because the set of circumstances for each society are often completely unique. One thing important to recognize is that not all societies fail because of their decisions; some societies anticipate, perceive, and attempt to solve their problems, but fail for other reasons, including not having the capacity to solve the problem, not having the financial resources to solve the problem, or not having become aware of the problem soon enough to fix it. Additionally, not all disastrous decisions lead to failure, and not all societies collapse. The most important question to ask of societal collapse is if, and how, it is manifesting today. Are modern day people making some of the disastrous decisions laid out by Diamond that could eventually leave us obsolete? Only time may tell.
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.