Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Collapse of the Mayans

The Mayan civilization is a Mesoamerica civilization, which may be best known for being one of the only civilizations to have developed a full language and writing system, which has been deciphered. Located throughout the southern states of present day Mexico, extending down to present day Honduras, the area known as the Mayan area was the largest sub-region in Mesoamerica.

The Mayans developed sophisticated mathematical and astrological systems, along with developing a 360 day calendar long before any other civilizations had done. Therefore, it comes as a surprise that such a advanced society would come to such a shocking end.

Jared Diamond has developed a five-point framework which can be used to help us better understand the collapse of many civilizations before us, using the five factors of environmental damage, climate change, hostile enemies, loss of friendly trade partners and response to crisis. Four of these five points contributed to the demise of the Mayan society.

Environmental Damage
The two main factors within environmental damage was deforestation and soil erosion. The Mayans cleared land for a few main reasons, to clear space for farmlands, and to use the resources that the trees provided such as fuel, for construction and making plaster. Plaster production was a major cause of deforestation, with many Maya buildings going overboard with lavish plaster decorations.

At one point a majority of the population within Maya society resided in the hill sides. Excavations into foundations of hillside buildings show that sometime in the 8th century it had been covered in sediment, and hill slopes had began to erode, and sucked dry of nutrients. Forests that had formally covered and protected soil on the valley floor had all been cleared, leaving the acidic infertile hill soils to be carried down into the valley, blanketing the lush fertile valley soils beneath them.

The vast Maya population outstripped all available resources. Hillside erosion decreased area available for use as farmland. Basically there was too many farms on too little land for the amount of people living within the Maya society.

Climate Change
The repeated occurrence of droughts played a significant role in the demise of the Maya society. Two previous smaller collapses, before the Classic collapse can all be associated with droughts. Maya area was relatively wet from 5500BC until 500BC. The period between 475-250BC was dry, and better conditions returned after 250BC, which may have facilitated the pre-Classic rise. Another drought occurred between AD125-AD250 which is suspected to be responsible for the collapse of El Mirador and other Maya sites. Once that drought ended Classic Maya cities began to build up.

AD760 bought the worst drought to the Mayan society that had been seen in 7,000 years, with the worst stage being around AD800. This is the drought that is thought to be responsible for the Classic collapse.

It has been speculated that droughts may have been “man-made” caused by deforestation, as trees can play a big part in water recycling. Droughts overall caused many problems for the Mayans with them being dependant on their own lakes, ponds etc to provide water to grow crops and to use as drinking water, which were in turn drying up leaving the Mayans in a state of starvation and thirst.

Hostile Enemies
Hostility amongst the Mayan civilization played a big role in the demise of the Mayan society. Limitations on food supply, available farmland and transportation made it difficult to unite the whole Mayan empire. Wars between separate kingdoms, attempts to revolt against their capital, civil wars trying to overthrow the kings and fights between commoners over land were not uncommon. More is known about the warfare, captives taken and the triumphants of the Mayan kings and nobles as descriptive details were inscribed on stone monuments, along with the boasting of their conquests.

Captives were tortured brutally with many of them having their fingernails and teeth pulled out, the bottom of their jaw cut off, fingers yanked out of their sockets, cutting off of their lips and tips of fingers, and putting nails through there lips. Some were even tied up in a ball, legs and arms bounded together, and then rolled to their death down the steep, stone staircase of a temple.

Wars between both the kings and nobles, and between the commons become more frequent and intense towards the time of the Classic collapse. There were many frequent fights over the best land, and many commoners ended up killing each other in struggles to get the best resources.

Loss Of Friendly Trade Partners
Out of Jared Diamonds five-point framework, this is the one point that was not essential in the collapse of the Mayan empire. The main imports that the Mayans received were obsidian, jade, gold and shells, with the last three being non essential luxury items. Obsidian, a shiny, black Volcanic glass, was the preferred material that the Maya used for making tools etc, and still remained widely distributed even after the collapse, proving to never have been in short supply.

Response To Crisis
The Mayan kings and nobles did not appear to be very concerned with the looming collapse that threatened their society. They had a tight rein on the commoners, who believed if they supplied the kings and nobles with luxuries, by feeding them corn and building their palaces for example, they would in turn keep away droughts. This may have made them believe that this was their work, not satisfying their kings, and that the droughts may not be a serious problem.

There was a fierce competition between both the nobles and kings, and a lot of their time was spent trying to take each other captive and over throwing each other. The kings and nobles took higher priority on the emphasis on current wars and erecting large monuments highlighting their triumphants rather than facing the larger, underlying problems. They did not take priority on trying to find possible solutions for the long term problems their society faced, which would have been a factor in the Maya collapse.

One thing we must remember is that the Mayan collapse was not a complete one. The Southern Lowlands were affected most as they were the area with the densest population, and had the most severe water problems. Those in the north were situated in areas with stable water supplies and along rivers, lakes and lagoons at lower elevations. This could factor into response.

Deforestation played a part in droughts becoming more intense. Droughts caused crops to fail, making limited food resources available to the population. Competition for resources began causing hostility and warfare between the commoners, kings and nobles. Many experts have drawn similarities between the Maya collapse and today’s Africa and other places susceptible to droughts. Experts suggest that those countries should learn from the Maya collapse to prevent a chain reaction beginning with drought, and ultimately ending in collapse.

The Maya civilization was a great one. They were the only civilization who appeared to have had a fully developed language, which could also be written. Maya art was considered be the most beautiful and sophisticated in the ancient New World, not to mention their spectacular architecture. At its peak it was the New Worlds most advanced civilization located in North America before the European arrival. Sadly, they were destined to fail. In conclusion I think that all of the factors presented in Jared Diamonds five-point framework play a part in the collapse of this society, with all of the factors tying in together to create a chain of reaction leading to the collapse of the society.

Diamond,(2006) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, USA.
American Scientist Online - Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization, 2005
National Geographic News - Climate Change Killed Off Maya Civilization, March 13 2003
Wikipedia - Maya Civilization, last updated 8 March, 2008

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