Mayan End Times: Lessons or Not?
The collapse of Mayan civilization after dominating and advancing during the first millenium AD has been the subject of many conjectures and has often been cited as perhaps the most telling example of humans exceeding their limits. Many authors have alleged that they simply exceeded the capacity of their systems, leading to a major collapse in about 800 AD. Others have suggested that a meteorite was to blame. An article this month in the Scientific American provides an interesting hypothesis that the Mayan collapse could have been the consequence of a volcanic eruption. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/volcanic-eruption-may-have-plunged-the-maya-into-a-ldquo-dark-age-rdquo/. Another hypothesis is that the Mayan civilization lost control over the governance and distribution systems which allowed them to control enough labour and resources to build and maintain their empire. Disease as well is one of the suggested culprits.
Work in the 1970s using remote sensing has allowed us to learn that they had far more sophisticated agricultural and irrigation systems than was previously understood which may also have made it much more fragile. In fact when the writer of this article (Ted Manning) did some studies in the area with a University of British Columbia team in the late 1960s most scientists were perplexed that what was thought to be a shifting cultivation system could support such population densities.
The use of multi-spectral imagery has now permitted considerable aerial mapping of the region and has revealed extensive remnants of previous buildings, roads and irrigation works. It is clear that the sophisticated irrigation systems of 500 AD collapsed and the residents lapsed into a much more simple and less productive slash and burn system as the jungle overgrew what had once been irrigated fields.
Jaguar Temple, Lamanai Belize
Even now, descendants of the original Maya still inhabit parts of the Yucatan and some like the Lacandon tribe still live much like their ancestors did after the collapse.
So what can we learn from the Maya?
- Civilization is fragile – and subject to collapse, whether the cause is natural hazards, one time events, resource depletion, disease or collapse of the system of governance. The Scientific American article has just added another potential cause to the collapse.
- Collapse of a civilization may not be complete; some survive and many do not. There are far less indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatan now than when the Mayan civilization was in full bloom. Without the complex system of government and supply, the carrying capacity was much less than before.
- An interesting sidenote is the 20th Century replacement of former sources of economic wealth with tourism.. which has its own capacities and limits.
- We still do not clearly understand the rise and collapse of what was one of the most successful historic civilizations. It might be useful to do so.