ICE Case Studies
Number 112, July, 2003

The Mayans, Climate Change, and Conflict,
by Matthew Markowitz

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information

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I. CASE BACKGROUND

1. Abstract

In 2,600 BCE (Before the Common Era), the foundations of a culture of Mesoamerican indigenous people called the Maya took root. A people that flourished for nearly 3000 years suddenly vanished due to an intertwined set of population explosion, wars, and drought. The Mayans built a sophisticated and fascinating culture with traditions of human sacrifice, monarchy, architecture and war. It suffered a catastrophic collapse and all but disappeared over a period of 150 years from 750 to 900 CE.

2. Description

Cultural Background

The Mayan lifestyle was a culture focused on war, kingship, sports and human sacrifice. Their lifestyle was organized by their religion and their complex calendar. This case study will only give a brief overview. For a more detailed description of their lifestyle, click here. For a description of their economic and trade systems, see a recent archaelogical finding, as reported on by ABC.

The political system was a monarchy generally passed down from father to firstborn son, at a certain age, a prince would be given more the rights to the throne. The father would celebrate in an odd blood-drawing ceremony in which he took blood from himself as an offering to his ancestors. A human sacrifice accompanied the offering. More available at Glenn Welker's site.

Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900. The society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centres. See the Canadian Museum of Civlization.

A large part of their religious rites was the concept of human sacrifice. For a rather gruesome explanation, see http://www.ambergriscaye.com/museum/digit14.html

Even their sports involved sacrifice of humans. They played games with balls as we do tyoday, but the balls they sued were often the heads of their slain enemy. http://www.maya-art-books.org/html/BALLlec.html and http://www.indians.org/welker/natlit.htm

Their religious rites involved significant astrology focused on their calendar system (http://www.michielb.nl/maya/astro.html). Some theorize that a monarch’s legitimacy was also reaffirmed by religious understandings (see Glenn Welker's site). Although, a recent find by archaeologist from Vanderbilt University, Arthur Demarest, uncovered a new find and the discussions like the following are being had:

The fact that Cancuén appears to have prospered for hundreds of years without warfare and that commerce appeared to play a far more important role in everyday life than religion contradicts the widespread view among scholars that religion and warfare were the sources of power for Maya kings, particularly toward the end of their dominance, after about 600 A.D.

The vast archeological temples and magnificent structures are still being discovered hidden either in the deep rainforests that cover that area or underground. For example ABCNews has a description or, better, see the Vanderbilt's Press Release.

Maya writing used a very advanced form of hyrogliphics. See http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/med/home.html.

Their archaeology gives good insight into their mode of thought and religious observance Both http://users.snowcrest.net/goehring/maya/ and http://mayaruins.com/ include beautiful examples.

The Collapse

Many theories have been promoted over the years to explain the Mayan collapse and inability to recover. Theories include everything from ecological destruction to a massive catastrophe (earthquake/hurricane/etc.) to evolution to disease to invasion (see Ch 1 by Adams in Schwartz, ed. The Classic Mayan Collapse, “Review of Previous Theories” for more detail about these theories). In fact, researchers still are not sure of all the factors that went into the decline of the Mayan civilization. Since 2001, a new strain of research has appeared, and one strain modified: drought and war, respectively. Here, it appears as though the most popular are that war intersected with a series of massive droughts.

The carrying capacity changed dramatically due to natural forces and therefore precipitated the collapse of the human system. This should come as no surprise to the system analyst, since many species in the ecotone were impacted. Richardson Gill believes that the “collapse occurred of external natural circumstances that the Mayans neither controlled nor caused.”

WAR

There always existed, to some extent, some form of war between states in the Mayan history. In the words of some historians,

Uncontrolled warfare was probably one of the main causes for the Maya's eventual downfall. In the centuries after 250--the start of what is called the Classic period of Maya civilization--the skirmishes that were common among competing city-states escalated into full-fledged, vicious wars that turned the proud cities into ghost towns. (Michael D. Lemonick, Time, Aug 9, 1993)

Demarest thinks the warfare described in the Dos Pilas inscriptions may reflect a period when the Maya civilization was on the verge of moving to a higher level of organization and consolidating into a single empire. "However, this didn't happen," he said. "Instead, the giant war went back and forth," he explained. "After Tikal was sacked, it eventually roared back and crushed Calakmul. And then the Maya world broke up into regional powers, setting the stage for a period of intensive, petty warfare that finally led to the collapse of the Maya." http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/09/0917_020919_pilas.html. While we don’t know how completely war played a factor into the Mayan collapse, we can be sure it played some significant role.

Environment

David Stuart, a Maya hieroglyph expert at Harvard University, said the conflicts recorded in the seventh-century inscriptions at Dos Pilas did not lead directly to the abandonment of Maya cities, which happened much later. "But it's true," he said, "that warfare is a big issue in Maya history, right up to the time of abandonment, although I think something catastrophic, whether environmental or what, played a major part." The information on the staircase at Dos Pilas is important, said Stuart, because it "gives us an idea of how bad things were—of the warfare and intrigue that was going on. It shows that these couldn't have been very happy times." http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/09/0917_020919_pilas.html

There are a few strands of guessing what that environmental impact was. University of Arizona archaeologist T. Patrick Culbert says pollen recovered from underground debris shows clearly that "there was almost no tropical forest left" at the time of the Mayan collapse.

More recently, Gerald H. Haug, Detlef Günther, Larry C. Peterson, Daniel M. Sigman, Konrad A. Hughen, Beat Aeschlimann wrote an article in Science Magazine (Volume 299, Number 5613, Issue of 14 Mar 2003, pp. 1731-1735 - one's school might have access to the their website and, therefore, their full-text articles) detailing a sediment sample taken from the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea. Their findings provide reason to believe that a series of three massive droughts led to the decimation of the Mayan civilization.

Firstly, they find that the Mayan communities relied on significant efforts to create a system of canals and artificial reservoirs. This provided them with power and control over the people, as water is almost the only source of life for a farming community.

Dry conditions beginning about 760 [CE] are clearly marked in the Cariaco Ti record by two large inferred rainfall minima (Fig. 3). Over the subsequent ~40 years, there appears to have been a slight long-term drying trend. This culminated in roughly a decade of more intense aridity that, within the limits of the present chronology, began at about 810 [CE] Drought at about 860 [CE] is recorded by a distinct interval of minimum Ti concentrations, indicating a short (~3 years) but apparently severe event at that time. Finally, low Ti contents in the Cariaco Basin sequence indicate the onset of yet another drought at about 910 [CE], this one estimated to have lasted for ~6 years.

While they admit they cannot prove their theory, with the data they have they have a guess:

We suggest that the rapid expansion of Maya civilization from 550 to 750 A.D. during climatically favorable (relatively wet) times resulted in a population operating at the limits of the environment's carrying capacity, leaving Maya society especially vulnerable to multiyear droughts.

The control of artificial water reservoirs by Maya rulers may also have played a role in both the florescence and the collapse of Maya civilization. Noting that the scale of artificial water control seems to correlate with the degree of political power of Maya cities, it has been suggested [by LJ Lecero, The collapse of the Classic Maya: A case for the role of water control, American Anthropologist 104 (3): 814-826 SEP 2002 - see its cite]

While these archaeologists and chemists collaborated on this research, some have their doubts. “‘This is not good science,’ says UT Austin's Karl Butzer.” (Ness, John, Newsweek, “Fall of the Mayans,” March 24, 2003, p42).

3. Duration: 750CE to 900CE (CE=Common Era)

750CE-900CE

4. Location & Geography

Continent: North America

Region: Southern North America

Country: Guatemala

Yucutan Peninsula and into Central America

The Mayan inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula in southern present-day Mexico, Guatemala, and even into El Salvador and Honduras. Most of the area in present-day Mexico is largely lowland hills and plains (see altitude map), whereas the land in present-day Guatemala is more mountainous and, at least at the time of the Mayans, rainforests. A typical, annual precipitation was between 100 and 300 centimeters (there were some areas that had over 300cm, too, but the majority got between 100-300 cm (see http://www.michielb.nl/maya/gif/maya_rainfall.gif and Culbert, Patrick T., p 13 in “The Classic Maya Collapse,” edited by Culbert). This rainfall was, depending on the exact location, sufficient to raise their staple crop, maize.

The summer rainy season and winter dry season, in addition to where on in relationship to the coast each group was, contributed to the quality of health within a single diet of any individual. (See Christine D. White, Reconstructing the Ancient Maya Diet, p.xxiii)

“Sedentary farming societies began to appear in southern Mesoamerica about 2000 bce… The first village[-style] inhabitants did not occur ntil about 1000 bce (in the Northern Lowlands) to 800 bce (in the Southern Lowlands).” (Culbert, p13-14) By about 400 bce until 250 ce, the monuments and pottery that typifies our classic knowledge of Mayan culture began to appear. The last of these monuments was dated somewhere between 889 ce and 909 ce. And suddenly, the Mayan civilization collapsed. They had until the Spanish conquistador entry in 1520 to recover, and they just didn’t do it. By 920ce, it was estimated that 95% of the Mayan population was destroyed (Gugliotta, Guy. Washington Post. March 14, 2003. No Cataclysm Brought Down Maya: New Research Suggests 200-Year Dry Spell and Drought Had Big Role in 'Collapse', http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A23311-2003Mar13?language=printer), a population that numbered anywhere between 3 and 13 millions poeple (estimates taken from footnotes in Haug, et. al, 17 & 18: 17 -- T. P. Culbert, D. S. Rice, Precolumbian Population History in the Maya Lowlands.18 -- R. Sharer, The Ancient Maya)

From Glenn Welker, http://www.indians.org/welker/maya.htm

Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Mayan civilization. The lowlands primarily produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigen being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope.

The volcanic highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes. The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials.

Please see the Canadian Museum of Civilization's website for more information.

5. Actors: Various Mayan City States

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Climate Chnage

The drought may have undermined the institution of Maya rulership when existing ceremonies and technologies failed to provide sufficient water. In this view, the larger regional centers suffered most, whereas secondary and minor Maya population centers that were less dependent on artificial reservoirs and water control were less affected. (Haug)

While no one model will accurately describe the extent to which each of the factors played into each other, the interplay of these two factors surely had something to do with it. In Guatemala in August 2003, there will be/was [depending on when you read this, since it was written in July 2003] a meeting of a number of the scholars in the field to hash out this and other new data.

7. Type of Habitat: Tropical

8. Act and Harm Sites: Mayans and Mayans

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Civil

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Most theories of the early 1990s focused on describing the ancient classic Mayans as a multipolar, as opposed to a bipolar, system, in which each of the states acted independently for their own interests. (The seminal book on types of systems is Morton Kaplan's, System and Process in International Politics, New York: Wiley, 1957). A "renegeade"theory, though, provided a guess. “In their alternative interpretation, Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube proposed that these campaigns reflected a larger struggle between major powers.” (See the National Geographic Article and see their book, Chronicle of Maya Kings/Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya)

After years of skepticism and controversy by the top Mayan experts and archaeologists, a discovery changed things: “new” hieroglyphics on an old site. In 2002, new glyphs, hidden for centuries, were revealed on a Mayan pyramid in Dos Pilas. Arthur Demarest (arthur.a.demarest@vanderbilt.edu), a professor at Vanderbilt University, was able to head a team to translate the glyphs, and he found that "Rather than being an independent actor, as previously thought, it now appears that Dos Pilas was a pawn in a much bigger battle," said Demarest. "In today's terms, Dos Pilas was the … Vietnam of the Maya world [at the time close to its collapse], used in a war that was actually between two superpowers." (National Geographic)

The two superpowers at this time were Tikal (northern Guaremala) and Calakmul (southern Mexico), separated from each other by about 60 miles. The inscriptions indicated that Dos Pilas was a “puppet” state for years.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

Although one brother defeated to other, in the end it did not matter. Nearly extinction. 95% of the ancient Mayans were wiped out.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Canadaian Museum of Civilization, http://www.civilization.ca/civil/maya/mmc03eng.html

Weissert, Will. Sept 8, 2000 for the Associated Press report. Available http://abcnews.go.com/sections/science/DailyNews/mayan000908.html

LJ Lecero, "The collapse of the Classic Maya: A case for the role of water control," American Anthropologist 104 (3): 814-826 SEP 2002 - see its cite

Ness, John, Newsweek, “Fall of the Mayans,” March 24, 2003, p42

Science Magazine. Volume 299, Number 5613, Issue of 14 Mar 2003, pp. 1731-1735 - one's school might have access to the their website and, therefore, their full-text articles

Adams in Schwartz, ed. The Classic Mayan Collapse, “Review of Previous Theories”

Richardson Gill believes that the “collapse occurred of external natural circumstances that the Mayans neither controlled nor caused.”

Michael D. Lemonick, Time, Aug 9, 1993

See the National Geographic Article and see their book, Chronicle of Maya Kings/Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya)

Welker, Glenn. "Mayan Civilization." 1998. http://www.indians.org/welker/maya.htm

http://www.ambergriscaye.com/museum/digit14.html

Even their sports involved sacrifice of humans. http://www.maya-art-books.org/html/BALLlec.html and http://www.indians.org/welker/natlit.htm

The Mayans' astronomy system and some other interesting things - writing, math, etc. http://www.michielb.nl/maya/

Gugliotta, Guy. Washington Post. March 14, 2003. No Cataclysm Brought Down Maya: New Research Suggests 200-Year Dry Spell and Drought Had Big Role in 'Collapse', http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A23311-2003Mar13

Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube proposed that these campaigns reflected a larger struggle between major powers.” (See the National Geographic Article and see their book, Chronicle of Maya Kings/Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya