Suicidal Maya?

Sustainability  |  02/14/2016

Are We Following the Maya Road to Ruins?

The ancient, highly advanced Maya civilization of MesoAmerica committed civilizational suicide by ignoring the environmental impact of their actions and exhausting natural resources – basically living as we are today.

Stalagmites in Chechem Ha,, Maya Ceremonial Cave in Belize
Stalagmites in Chechem Ha,, Maya Ceremonial Cave in Belize

Dr. Jaime Awe, Assistant Professor at Northern Arizona University and Director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project (BVARP) recently concluded research showing that the ancient Maya not only lost their civilization to the far-reaching effects of extreme drought, they induced much of it themselves. Studying stalagmites (I know, the ones that point up) in Belizian caves Dr. Awe was able to cut into mineral deposits left by moisture dripping down over thousands of years. Taking slices in this manner he could measure the environmental impact of natural events over time, much like studying the rings of a tree. Dr. Awe’s team has found that there were several episodes of severe drought during the peak of Maya population approximately 700 – 900 AD – the end of what is referred to as the Classic Period. He also found that  population growth was far greater during this period, causing cities to bump up against one another. This growth quickly stressed the region’s limited resources, leading to war. Basically the Maya fell victim to famine and warfare resulting from years of extensive deforestation for expansive cities, impressive gaudy monuments and industrialized agriculture, sapping the land of nutrients and drastically reducing regional rainfall. This led many to flee and others to die.

“There is no doubt that the level of deforestation as a result of the extensive agriculture that the maya practiced would’ve certainly had adverse effects,” explains Awe. “They had droughts before but it didn’t effect them as severely, but when the population increases these problems are exacerbated. Some of the biggest droughts occur between 750 and 900 and again a few hundred years later, and it coincides with the time when many of these sites are being abandoned.”

While many are aware that the vast majority of the Maya had died or fled MesoAmerica prior to Spanish arrival, none had tied the diaspora to a self-induced climactic event as Dr. Awe and his team have. One of the most severe periods of drought they identified coincides with a 25-year period from 750-775 AD during which

A Stelae from the Ancient Maya City of Tikal in Guatemala
Stelae from the Ancient Maya City of Tikal in Guatemala

archaeologists have found 39 stelae (upright monolithic stone panels with inscriptions) commemorating major wars in the region. That’s right – thirty-nine major wars in only 25 years, most likely resulting from power struggles over limited resources and land. Cities had grown into each other and the primary need of any agrarian society like the Maya is land to farm.

“Around 800 AD we’re having some major problems with land, these cities ranging from 10,000 to 150,000 people, its just too many people for this area,” explains Luis Godoy, Yucatec Maya Historian and Guide. “The overpopulation and overuse of the natural resources led to famine, and of course in this period they were becoming enemies because of agriculture, land, when farmland was bumping and they were fighting for territory.”

Awe’s team used LIDAR technology, a type of radar that uses laser to “see” ancient structures through dense foliage. Using this technology Awe’s team was able to identify that the actual magnitude of Maya civilization in this region was far greater than previously thought. Able to see smaller settlements for the first time in addition to larger sites Awe found that the actual population of ancient Maya in Belize alone had exploded to an estimated one million people during the end of the Classic Period (700-900AD). One million people living in an area that now supports only about 250,000. When you run out of resources and land, you attack your neighbors. We are no different today as arguably every war in modern history has been driven by economic factors.

“Many of the wars that america has fought in the Middle East have certainly had an economic reason or purpose, you have to ensure the flow of that black gold,” explains Awe. “So certainly I think that with growing populations, deforestation, competition for finite resources, then eventually we see warfare increasing around the same time period, we see dietary problems, the nutrition people used to enjoy. Now they’re eating less protein, mostly corn, you can see the pathologies associated with that – like iron deficiency, protein deficiencies – so there’s a whole bunch of related factors that are being affected.”

GMO Corn, Bigger and Badder Than the Real Deal
GMO Corn: Bigger and Badder Than the Real Deal

Many of the pathologies Awe alludes to are widely apparent in our society today, and could be responsible for our issues with diabetes, obesity, ignorance and prescription drug overload. Our diets primarily consist of processed and genetically modified foods with little or no nutritional value because they are the most profitable for the companies producing them and the cheapest for us to purchase. Animal proteins that haven’t been subjected a disease-causing diet of corn or subjected to antibiotics and growth hormones are quite expensive, and are now being genetically modified. Corn and soy, the two major crops dominated by companies producing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) find their way into a wide variety of processed foods and other products. Not surprisingly these two crops are also among the most-subsidized by the U.S. Government.

Though we’re told GMOs will help us meet the challenge of feeding a growing population research shows this to be totally false – and this is just one of many issues with GMOs that should be concerning us. While nations around the world are banning them we cannot even pass a national law to label them. Profit is far more important than people in the capitalist world economy we have chosen to live within, and the omnipresent signs are becoming blatant. The Maya and every other ancient civilization prior to ours has shown us that pampering few at the expense of many eventually ends in famine, warfare, flight and failure. We can either take back our power and start living smarter now or continue believing ads from corporations and the governments they own and keep living the same way despite the fact that our population is growing beyond our capacity to support. This is called, “unsustainable” at best, “fatally stupid” at least. Why can’t we learn?

“I think one of the reasons us humans don’t seem to learn that lesson could be partly that we’re a little selfish, or we think, ‘that’s not going to happen in my time, let somebody else worry about it.'” states Awe. “It’s almost like passing the buck and it’s a really sad thing cuz we’re talking about our own children, and i think if we start to think about it in those terms hopefully we will wizen up and say, guess what – it can happen in OUR lifetime, so maybe we need to start thinking seriously about how to address these challenges.” According to NASA we had better start soon.

While in Belize we were fortunate to have been allowed to film Dr. Awe’s latest work with his Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project (BVARP) on a site called Baking Pot. Research suggests that Baking Pot served as the epicenter for Maya agricultural production for the region in two primary areas. Among recent finds at Baking Pot is a steam bath that was used by the elite who managed the agricultural labor on site. Despite the presence of elite and their daily supervision of the masses to build enormous monuments at the expense of limited resources, like the ancient Egyptians the Maya never technically practiced “slavery.” One could argue that the masses were certainly indentured to a degree, but the leaders were able to instill a common motivation in the people for many hundreds of years that faded over time as conditions worsened without relief.

Ceremonial Pottery Offerings, Chechem Ha Cave, Belize
Ceremonial Pottery Offerings, Chechem Ha Cave, Belize

Awe’s team found signs of increased societal stress among the ancient Maya in the conduct of more intensified rituals in Belizean caves, where many of the Maya fertility and agricultural gods were thought to exist. While in earlier periods of Maya civilization cave rituals were conducted to connect with one’s ancestors by leaving gifts and pottery, later rituals ramped-up to include the sacrifice of animals, indicating the desperate nature of an agrarian society trying to grow food without rain. They became so desperate that they began to sacrifice humans. The elite Priests saw their influence fading fast as the people began to question their connections to the gods. After all, you can only sacrifice so many people to appease the rain god without results before you start to question how well the Priest really knows this guy. This is not at all unlike the fading of our “American Dream” as years of political, economic and social corruption are finally coming to light.

Down the road at another site in Belize’s Cayo District Awe’s team found an enormous mound of chert that could’ve resulted from hundreds of years of creating tools on site. Just uphill from this mountain of chert is an ancient storage chamber called a choltun, similar to a granary used by indigenous North Americans. Choltuns like this one were often built with a hole in the top for drop-down access. Inside the chamber were the human remains of at least 2, possibly 3 or more young adults who had been buried or sacrificed there in addition to passages into adjoining rooms.

In addition to shedding light on the failure of ancient Maya civilization, Dr. Awe has been conducting research at two other ancient Maya cities near San Ignacio, Belize – Carol

Sustainable Agriculture, Novel Concept
Sustainable Agriculture, Novel Concept

Pech and El Pilar. Awe’s research at these sites is suggesting the Maya pre-classic period began around 1200 BC, or roughly 300-500 years prior to previously held beliefs. As enormous ancient Maya cities like El Mirador in Guatemala and Pacbitun in Belize continue to expose their secrets we may learn far more about the Maya and how they tragically sacrificed themselves and their civilization to feed the greed of expanding rulers and territories. We may find out that as Dr. Awe’s research suggests, when we look at the ancient Maya we are looking in the mirror at another civilization on the verge of collapse.

“I think one of the lessons we can learn is that in spite of the fact that these people created this complex civilization, you can make mistakes along the way and if you don’t correct those mistakes or if you don’t recognize what some of the impacts can be and try to address them its gonna hurt you in the long run,” explains Awe. “That to me is one of the most important lessons that we today in the present can learn from the past, that is you know, are the things we’re doing today sustainable and for how long?”

We would like to thank Dr. Awe, his colleague Dr. Julie Hogarth and the wonderful group of researchers we had the pleasure of meeting out there on the front lines in Belize who have chosen to dedicate their lives to learning from our past to help us avoid perpetuating the same mistakes. We hope to see you all again soon – keep up the great work!


Check out the video version of our journey for truth on Road2Ruins!