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Environmental Studies 485, The Role of the Environment in the Collapse of Human Societies: The Ancient Mayan Civilization

Summer 2015 in Belize
Instructor: Lisa Collins
Dates: TBD

Course Background:

As the human population surpasses 7 billion, environmental degradation has become a widespread problem. At the same time, anthropogenic global warming is expected to result in major climate and environmental change across the Earth. What effect will these changes have on human societies? Will they adapt to these environmental changes or collapse? One way to address this is to study the effect of environmental change on past human societies. This approach has in fact been recommended by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, 2002).

Although research into this subject is in its infancy, there are some examples where environmental change (or human behavior) proved to be too much for human societies and they rapidly disintegrated unable to adapt for some reason. Some of these include the civilization on Easter Island in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, the Anasazi of the U.S. southwest, and Greenland’s Viking settlements. How can we now study these collapsed civilizations in order to inform us of the potential social dynamics our current societies may exhibit in the face of global environmental change? What tools (archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, paleoclimatology, geology, geography, computer modeling) do we have at our disposal to reconstruct the reasons why these past civilizations failed and others succeeded?

Learning Objectives:

This course will address these questions through a problem based learning approach by focusing on the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization in Mesoamerica that occurred over 1000 years ago. The fate of the ancient Maya has recently been popularized by Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. The reasons for synchronous and widespread political disintegration or “collapse” are complex and currently debated. Two of the most likely hypotheses include climate change and environmental degradation.

Students will be immersed into the modern Mayan culture of Southern Belize, which has not changed drastically since the Collapse of the Classic Maya.  Students will experience the environment and observe the challenges the ancient Mayan dealt with in this region.  Students will gain firsthand knowledge visiting some of the most well-known and historically important ancient Mayan polities as well as visiting others that are less archeologically prominent yet potentially hold the keys to discovering what lead to the Collapse of the Classic Maya.

Program Costs:

Tuition: $6408

Airfare: $750-900 (As of October 2015)

Note: Students should wait to purchase airline tickets until instructed to do so, as courses may be canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.

Accommodations and Additional Expenses: TBD

For further information on this course, contact Professor Lisa Collins at 213.740.0124 or send an email to