Ancient Caracol lasted longer, was more democratic

The annual archaeology symposium continued today at the Bliss ... and while scholars debated the reasons behind the demise of the ancient Maya civilisation it is becoming increasingly clear that today's Belizeans have a lot to learn by looking at the past.

Dr. Arlen Chase, Director of Caracol Excavation, Univ. of Central Florida
“Belize has one of the richest archaeological pasts of all of the Central American countries.”

Alyssa Noble, Reporting
The theme being explored at this year’s archaeological symposium is the Terminal Classic period and archaeologists are comparing notes to find out exactly what the Maya world was like at the time of its demise. Dr. Arlen Chase has been working at the site of Caracol for much of his professional life.

Dr. Arlen Chase
“The terminal classic period at Caracol was very vibrant. And all of the downtown area was essentially occupied up until around 8895 to 900, where we have a series of burning events that probably occurred simultaneously. What happened, what most people correlate with the terminal classic are monuments and the last monument in Caracol was put up in 859, and so initially we too thought that “oh the site collapsed in 859.” But after digging these palaces and running consistent radio carbon dates, it is absolutely clear that the site was occupied for at least forty years past the monument record being stopped.”

According to Dr. Chase, an extended occupation at Caracol wasn’t the only surprising discovery.

Dr. Arlen Chase
“One of the things that does show up in terminal Classic trash, sometimes but not so much at Caracol, but at other sites like Nohmul in northern Belize, at Tikal, is that you have burnt human bone that is just tossed out with dog, with deer and with rabbit. And it’s pretty clear that humans were essentially part of the diet in the Terminal Classic. And it’s not all that strange, it’s pretty strange to us, but it’s not all that strange when you think about it in terms of the Aztecs. The Aztecs even had functioning rules on how to divide up a body and who would get which portions of a human body for nutritional purposes.”

Chase notes that the Maya of Belize cannot be viewed in a vacuum.

Dr. Arlen Chase
“The Maya world is tied into all of the rest of Meso-America, and the rest of Meso-America is also going through major changes around 8800 and subsequent to that. And one of the things we’ve always tended to look at this is the Maya in isolated form and they are not isolated. They are participating in events and they are trading with partners all the way into Central Mexico. So we really need to look at a broader pattern in order to understand what are the processes, and what are the events that are leading to the abandonment of the Southern lowlands.”

For Dr. Chase, those processes and events had to do a lot with situations that are currently affecting modern day countries.

Dr. Arlen Chase
“In my mind, a lot of the issue is clearly socio-political. I needed to say that the kingship in Caracol disappeared at the beginning of the late Classic Period. By 700 A.D. we sort of have a monument hiatus, and we have massive population throughout the site, so it’s not a fact that’s there’s a mis-link between the two. So what we feel is that the kingship became a lesser office by 700 A.D. and you probably had a much more egalitarian is what we would call it today. But it was a society that was essentially running its own business without having to have a hereditary elite. What happens later is that the elite tries to re-establish themselves in the terminal classic and our monument record shows that. The earliest monument that is actually put up in the Terminal Classic is a gigantic stela of a vision serpent. So they are literally gaining legitimacy again to be kings. And I think it’s a failed experiment if we look at the archaeological record.”

But is this the ultimate answer to the lingering question of what caused the fall of this great civilization?

Dr. Arlen Chase
“Whether or not we get a definitive answer, it’s really one of those mysteries. It’s one of those things that are going to linger. What we need to have is better archaeological data.”

In the meantime, Dr. Chase encourages all Belizeans to get out there and discover Belize’s past first hand.

Dr. Arlen Chase
“All the people of Belize need to understand how important their history is, how important Maya archaeology is here and how interesting all of these remains are. And the school children in particular need to go look at these sites and realize that there are other ways of doing things than our current ways. There were other kinds of societies and other traditions in the past and they are part of the Belizean heritage.”

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Chase's work, tune in on August third to the History Channel, where the documentary "Maya Prophecy", will be aired.