Thursday, October 11, 2012

Inconvenient Arrogance, Part 4 -- The Maya

For all his learning or sophistication, man still instinctively reaches towards that force beyond. Only arrogance can deny its existence, and the denial falters in the face of evidence on every hand. In every tuft of grass, in every bird, in every opening bud, there it is.”
-- Hal Borland
Mayan City of Tikal
The Mayan culture of Central America was arguably one the most advanced civilizations in the world.  The architecture was magnificent; the Mayan calendar is still the most accurate and complex ever invented;  their knowledge of astronomy still astounds us; and their sophisticated written language is still being deciphered today.  There is good evidence that the Maya or their predecessors the Olmec had an advanced understanding of the cosmos and a written language as early as 3000 B.C.  I point to the dates on their monuments that originate from 3113 B.C.
But unlike the Moche culture that I described in Part 3 of this series, the Mayan culture did not fail all at once because of a single climatic event.  There are a number of reasons and I shall touch on some of them, but I still see evidence of the devastating role that arrogance played on each of the collapses.
Frederick Catherwood lithograph of Tulum, 1844
Unlike the Moche empire, the Maya never unified the many grand empires under a single rule.  Probably the biggest factor was that the terrain forced the different cities to be isolated and were separated by great distances.  The difficulty of agriculture to provide for the huge populations needed to support the massive cities required ever expanding cultivation of land surrounding the cities.  There is evidence of terraced hill slopes to retain soil and moisture, irrigation systems, and complex canal systems to enhance production and extend the fertility of the soil beyond what was possible with slash and burn techniques, but, because of the low protein crops, lack of domesticated animals, high humidity that curtailed storage, and difficulty of transporting crops (again no domesticated animals) a typical farmer could only produce twice what he needed for himself and his family.  A paltry surplus compared to other advanced cultures.
It is easy to see the affect that climate change had on the Mayan empires.   The pre-classic rise of El Mirador coincides with the wet climate that prevailed from 250 B.C.  to 125 A.D.  Then El Mirado collapsed during the drought from 125 A.D. to 250 A.D.  The rise of the classic period coincided with the return of a wetter period from 250 A.D. to 500 A.D.  The momentous event that started the collapse of the Moche culture in 536 A.D. also appears to have affected the Maya. This event coincides with the so-called “Mayan Hiatus” in 6th and 7th centuries when no monuments were erected at the well-studied site of Tikal.  There is no doubt that turmoil and confusion gave the cultures reason to pause during the several years when the sun was blocked by acidic particles in the atmosphere (refer to Part 3) and temperatures cooled.  Following the cooling period, the worst drought in the last 7,000 years peaking around 800 A.D. coincides with the collapse of the classic period.  End dates on monuments for clusters of Maya centers fall into three clusters – 810, 860, and 910 which match the severe droughts that occurred around those three dates.
Time and time again, the cities would expand and grow during periods of favorable weather until they were vulnerable to periods of drought and failed.  And, as we saw with the Moche, the Kings and nobles who had taken credit for prosperity were blamed for the climate change.  And, like the Moche, cruel ritual ceremonies of human sacrifice developed and increased as each empire went into collapse.
As Jared Diamond wrote in his Pullitzer Prize winning book “Collapse”, “In Maya society the king also functioned  as high priest carrying the responsibility  to attend to  astronomical and calendrical rituals, and thereby to bring rain and prosperity, which the king claimed to have the supernatural power to deliver because of his asserted family relationship to the gods.  That is, there was a tacitly understood quid pro quo: the reason why the peasants supported the luxurious lifestyle of the king and his court, fed him corn and venison, and built his palaces was because he had made implicit big promises to the peasants.  … [the] kings got into trouble with their peasants if a drought came, because that was tantamount to the breaking of a royal promise.”
Once again, the “inconvenient arrogance” that man can influence or control climate most likely brought down the magnificent Mayan culture as it did the incredible Moche. 

Continue to Part 5

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