What Happened to the Maya? Part Two

Anyone who has studied the ancient Maya for more than, let's say, fifteen minutes has had to come to grips with the question of how such a remarkable civilization came to a rapid and inglorious end. The archeological evidence tells us that around 800 to 900 A.D. the Maya world came apart at the seams. The great ceremonial centers and urban settlements were abandoned and the system that had served the Maya for so many centuries was quite suddenly trashed in favor of a wholesale return to the jungle and subsistence farming. The Maya did not leave the planet. They are still out there in the rural areas of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize; about four million of them. Moreover they don't particularly enjoy full scale participation in the dominant culture where they live. Most don't speak Spanish and could care less about time national politics. They deal with the outside world through a few men who as intermediaries to arrange for the marketing of Maya craft production in local economies.

The central question becomes one of why the Maya system, based on highly successful elite ruling class that dominated Maya life for centuries through a complex system of dynastic rule came to a rapid end. The archeological evidence suggests a number of important clues that may provide some answers to the thousand-year old riddle.

Many scholars believe that the Maya were exceeding the carrying capacity of the ecosystem; simply too many mouths to feed and inefficient farm production trying to keep up with demands from an expanding population. By 800 A.D. or so the Maya are beginning to feel the pressure as they are pushed into a marginal situation where survival is just a few meals away. Excavated graves of the common people of the period reveal skeletons that are actually getting smaller from poor nutrition. There is evidence for vitamin deficiency, disease and premature death. The bones extracted from the tombs of the elite ruling class, however, are robust and healthy, suggesting something of a disparity in food distribution both in terms of quality and quantity.

The Maya had practiced irrigation farming for centuries, but as the door began to close on the glory days, labor intensive agriculture became more important. Swamps were networked with irrigation canals and the canals themselves now became fish hatcheries. Food resources that had previously been ignored or under-exploited now became important elements in the diet. Excavations at Lamanai carried out by the author in 1995-96 revealed a residential area occupied during the last years of the Maya struggle for survival. Garbage dumps (we call them "middens") show that the local residents began to eat fresh-water snails when things started to get a little tight around 800 A.D. At first the snails are quite large; only mature snails were taken. As time passed the snails got smaller and smaller until finally the resources seemed to have been exhausted. Bones of game animals also became smaller through time The deepest part of the midden contained bones of mature deer, peccary, turkey and even manatee. Through time the bones became smaller, finally indicating the inhabitants were taking pretty much anything they could lay their, hands on. The bones from the latter period included those of deer fawns, tiny turtles only a few inches in diameter, fish no bigger than sardines and a large number of bones from small rodents and snakes. These are not people with lots of options for lunch. As a matter of fact it appears that they were desperate for the next meal, whatever that might be. Certainly the evidence points to a population unconcerned with conservation. The middens seem to say to us that the Maya had the attitude "Let's eat what we can today and worry about tomorrow later."

Finally, there is yet another piece of evidence that suggests things went downhill rather abruptly, and the common people were not in a particularly good mood as they left town. Many of the huge carved stone monuments erected to commemorate important events in the lives of the kings and princes were systematically defaced and destroyed as the common people abandoned the cities. It sort of reminds me of what recently took place in eastern Europe. The Communist System failed the common people, and while there was no open revolt to amount to much, the symbols of the failed system were defaced and destroyed. Statues of Lenin, Marx and Stalin were toppled into the streets because the system had failed.

Perhaps we are getting closer to the truth about the decline of the ancient Maya. It is entirely possible that they fell victim to the same human frailty that threatens so much of the planet today ... too many people, not enough food.

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