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Matt Crenson, Reconstructions

What the Maya really have to tell us about the end of the world

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SN Prime | September 24, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 36

In the wake of the third hottest U.S. summer on record, with the Arctic sea ice at its smallest extent on record and a drought driving food prices to all-time records, it might be a good time to consider what the Maya have to teach us about the end of the world.

No, not the mythical Maya who allegedly saw in the stars (or somewhere) that an apocalyptic transformation of humanity would take place on or around December 21, 2012. We’re talking about the real Maya, the ones who hacked a grand civilization out of the Mesoamerican jungle only to see their cities and monuments fall to ruin just over a millennium ago.

Those Maya had thoroughly transformed the natural environment into an intensively managed landscape designed to meet human needs, just as our global civilization has today. And their demise came about during a period of extreme regional dryness, a climatic shift that could be considered analogous to the warming trend the entire globe is now experiencing. Perhaps 7 billion earthlings should consider the Maya before charting their own course into the future.

As far as we know, the Maya were doing just fine in the years leading up to 800. They had produced a network of city-states that extended from the Yucatán Peninsula south into modern-day Belize and northern Guatemala. Those states were ruled by a hereditary elite tracing its authority to the gods themselves. That made Maya rulers supremely powerful, able to marshal the resources for the construction of impressive monuments like the pyramids at Tikal, the largest of which rises more than 60 meters.

Allegedly divine power also gave Maya rulers the ability to construct water management systems to combat the primary environmental challenge in the region — access to water. Though the Maya lived in a tropical forest, various factors conspired to make water hard to come by. A winter dry season made rainfall scarce for about four months a year, and in much of the region surface water was rare due to porous limestone bedrock. The region was also prone to occasional droughts that could last well over a decade.

The Maya conquered these hydrological obstacles with reservoirs and other water control projects around cities like Calakmul and Tikal, thought to have had populations exceeding 50,000. By 700, as many as 5 million people may have lived in the Maya-controlled world.

Growing corn for that many people meant cutting down a lot of trees. Sediment cores show massive reductions in tree pollen leading up to the Maya collapse, with correspond­ing increases in maize and the bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum, a common weed species.

It’s clear that by the end of the eighth century or so, the Maya had degraded the natural environment substantially by removing forest for construction and agriculture. A pair of severe droughts began about that time, reducing summer rainfall by up to 50 percent.

That’s certainly enough to cause hardship, but it can’t be the only thing that pushed the Maya to the brink, B.L. Turner II of Arizona State University and Jeremy Sabloff of the Santa Fe Institute argue in the Aug. 28 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. There’s no indication of the kind of widespread famine and starvation you’d expect in a purely environmental catastrophe, they point out. But there’s plenty of written and archaeological evidence for endemic warfare. That suggests a Maya elite that was increasingly frustrated at its inability to produce prosperity under difficult environmental conditions.

And the Maya collapse wasn’t a sudden blow that struck all places equally. A few interior locations persisted through the collapse, as well as a number of cities and smaller settlements near the coast and on major waterways. That pattern may reflect geographic variations in drought intensity that hit some cities harder than others. But it may also suggest that more trade by sea was an important nonenvironmental factor in the collapse, redirecting wealth from inland commercial centers like Tikal and Calakmul.

Whatever caused the collapse, the Maya people survived it. Their diminished empire lasted until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, and their language and culture remain today. But the Maya never again reached the same population or level of political organization they had achieved before their ninth century collapse. The precise combination of factors that led to their remarkable achievements in astronomy, writing and architecture never came together again.

Is today’s global civilization threatened by imminent collapse? Probably not. But it faces a complex web of threats remarkably similar to those the Maya encountered in the ninth century. Climate change combines with unsustainable natural resource exploitation in a world where the economic order is shifting and once-secure leaders find it increasingly difficult to exert power. This century may not bring the end of the world. But if the Maya are any indication, it will almost certainly be the end of the world as we know it.

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