Lessons for our time from the lost Mayan civilisation

By Dee Smith
25 June 2006

ON a hilltop in extreme north-western Belize, I am standing on a floor that, until about a week ago, had not been stood upon for more than a thousand years. The buildings of an ancient Maya elite residence are slowly emerging, as parts of the hill are essentially peeled back by the careful process of a team of Maya Research Programme (MRP) archaeologists. A stone staircase, a doorway, a bench, even a sweat house for inducing religious visions, reveal themselves in blinding shades of off-white under the blistering tropical sun, in contrast to the low verdant growth around them.

Fifty years ago, the entire region was covered by dense jungle. Parts still are, but the area on which I am standing, and most of what is visible in every direction, has been cleared for agriculture by the Mennonites, who arrived starting in the 1950s. A few remnants of jungle can be seen on a hilltop across a valley, or “bajo”. “The surprising thing,” says Tom Guderjan, the president of MRP, “is that around 800AD, in the late Classic period, it would have looked like this. There was no forest. The Maya had cut it all down.”

The vision we have of the ancient Maya living in cities rising from the jungle – as the ruins do today– is just not accurate. By the late Classic period, the demands to feed a growing population had necessitated removing most of the forest. “In this area, about a thousand people live today. In the early 9th century, there were not less than 20,000 here,” explains Dr Guderjan.

At the Blue Creek site core – the “city centre” of this area – jungle has again overtaken the buildings. “Every flat surface you see is artificial; everything that sticks up from a flat surface is artificial. This is a totally altered environment,” says Guderjan. Just a few years ago, they were excavated, documented and studied and then reburied to protect them.

What happened? Scientific discoveries are beginning to give some real answers. The society seems to have collapsed very quickly. There is substantial evidence for this, based in part on “termination rituals” (the Maya believed a building had to be ritually terminated at the end of its use).

At the site core, the MRP team found that, on what seems to have been a single day or at the most a few days, the ancient Maya “terminated” all of the public buildings in the main plaza, buildings they had maintained for hundreds of years, leaving carefully arranged artifacts in front of each one: figurines, vases, dishes, plates, musical instruments, obsidian blades.

Then they left and, perhaps most surprisingly, no one disturbed the materials until archaeologists found them 1,200 years later. It would be as if we arranged the mementos of state in front of the White House or Buckingham Palace, and then walked off, never to return.

Where did they go? “They did not just leave the cities to go back into the forest to lead a “simpler” life, as people used to believe,” says Guderjan. Just a few miles in each direction there were other cities, with surrounding land under cultivation, and this extended throughout the whole of the Classic Maya Lowlands ­– what is now Belize plus large parts of southern Mexico, Guat­emala and Honduras.

Numerous lines of evidence point to what happened. The Maya had built not only a brilliant civilisation – with the only full writing system ever developed in the Americas – but also developed a sophisticated system of intensive agriculture and trade to feed the growing population.

As the number of mouths to feed grew, the Maya had to expand their agricultural base. Archaeologists have found platforms, built on poor land on slopes adjacent to the rich black earth of the bajos in an attempt to increase production. Soil erosion from landscape stripping (that is, from cutting down the forest) began to remove 50-75cm of soil a year.

The canals the Maya had built for irrigation and access to fields began to silt up, and what had provided access now became mud and prevented access. It was a classic vicious circle: the more land they cleared, the less productive the land became, so the more land they had to clear. The repetitive use of the same crops, especially maize, exhausted the phosphates in the soil. Pollen samples show that by the end almost nothing was growing in the area other than agricultural crops.

It did not take a fast, dramatic rise in population to overwhelm the system. With a population increase of just 1.5% per year, population doubles every 41 years. At some point in the mid-ninth century AD, an area-wide tipping point began to be experienced. The Maya had simply reached and exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. It was not pretty in the end. At one site, archaeologists found what seems to have been the royal family, executed by spears thrust through their abdomens to cut the lower spinal cord. In many cases, probably all or most of the inhabitants died, in final battles over dwindling resources.

Most of the warnings we receive today about collapse related to the environment are expressed in terms of catastrophic events such as global warming. However, what we are learning about the Classic Maya gives us another ­scenario, possibly more scary because it might be more probable.

Today, we are adding literally billions of people, particularly in South and East Asia, to the ranks of those who want, and have the economic means to pursue, the affluent lifestyle those of us in the West enjoy. The resource demands to fulfill this are literally staggering. For example, China plans a highway system that will require a billion barrels of oil just for the black-top.

Meanwhile, the United States, Europe, and Japan continue to use 80% of the world’s energy resources for a collective 18% of its population. This is what is required to live the lifestyle. The question of whether there are actually enough resources on the planet to expand by more than 400% the number of people enjoying anything like a Western standard of living, must be asked. In fact, it is hardly a question: under the present circumstances, clearly there are not.

Of course, the ancient Maya did not have the possibilities of innovation afforded by our science and technology to solve any of their problems. Perhaps that will make our trajectory different, if we make the decision as a society to really think ahead and to devote enough resources to solving long-term problems such as energy.

What the Maya collapse makes clear to us is that once a Rubicon has been crossed, there is no recourse and no going back. Problems spiral, and the resources no longer exist to address them. It can happen quickly and, one suspects, without the gathering storm seeming very urgent. Until the tipping point is reached, life continues more or less normally.

Will we learn the lessons of Blue Creek? The optimists among us would hope we will rise to the occasion. The pessimists would claim the innate short-sightedness and hard-wired self-interest of human nature make it unlikely. Time will tell.

Dee Smith is chief executive of Strategic Insight Group (SIG), a global, US-based private intelligence agency serving the investment, legal, and corporate communities.