Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Mighty Maya Cities in Petén Succumbed to Environmental Crisis

PARIS, Sep 5 2011 (IPS) - The example of the Mayas in Petén, who destroyed the soil and forests through intensive agriculture and a love of opulence, should lead us to reflect on the consequences of excessive consumption, says archeologist Richard Hansen in this interview.

Figure of Ah Puch, the god of death, mother-of-pearl mosaic with jade and pyrite incrustations, A.D. 500-800, found in Topoxté, Petén. - Julio Godoy/IPS

Figure of Ah Puch, the god of death, mother-of-pearl mosaic with jade and pyrite incrustations, A.D. 500-800, found in Topoxté, Petén. - Julio Godoy/IPS

The latest archeological findings in the Mirador Basin of Guatemala lend further credence to the theory that the Maya civilization that once flourished there was brought down by environmental causes such as deforestation.

A major exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in París until Oct. 2, "Maya: From Dawn to Dusk", features over 150 pieces of art and ceramics from El Mirador, in northern Guatemala, and illustrates the scientific and artistic sophistication of this ancient Mesoamerican civilization.

The artifacts – cups, sculptures, portions of stele (carved stone slabs) and ceramic reliefs – were recently uncovered at the archeological site in the northern department of Petén, near the Mexican border.

They date from the Preclassic and Classic periods of Maya civilization, approximately 1000 B.C. to A.D. 900.

The Maya civilization developed over the course of 3,000 years, from the establishment of the first villages, over a vast geographical area, in what is now southeastern Mexico (the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo and parts of Tabasco and Chiapas), Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador.

The Maya civilization never actually disappeared: there are more than four million people who continue to speak many Mayan languages throughout Mesoamerica today.

The Mirador Basin was a sophisticated urban complex encompassing numerous large cities, including El Mirador, Nakbé, El Tintal, Wakná and the recently discovered Xulnal, linked by causeways up to 50 meters wide and several tens of kilometers long.

The site includes structures up to 70 meters in height with volumes of more than two million cubic meters, larger than the Egyptian pyramids.

While they demonstrate the high degree of scientific and artistic development of the Mayas, the ceramics and especially the architecture suggest that their collapse was caused by the environmental degradation of the region, says U.S. archeologist Richard Hansen, the director of the Mirador Basin research project and scientific adviser for the Paris exhibition.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What caused the collapse of the Maya civilization?

RICHARD HANSEN: When we talk about the collapse of a civilization, what we mean is the disappearance, the complete abandonment of a region. At the end of World War II (1939-1945), the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in less than three years, both cities had been repopulated.

In the case of the Mayas, that didn’t happen. Why did they abandon such vibrant, apparently healthy and successful cities like those in the Mirador Basin? Generally, when we talk about the collapse of civilizations, the cause is always environmental.

That was the case of Babylonia. To irrigate their fields, the peoples of Mesopotamia used water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. But intensive agriculture left the fields barren. Babylonia remains abandoned even today. It’s not because no one wants to live there, it’s because you can’t live there.

Something similar happened in Petén. The Mayas covered practically all of the walls and floors of their buildings and the surfaces of their monuments with stucco.

Our analysis of the walls in El Mirador indicates that, initially, the layers of stucco weren’t very thick, about two centimeters. But as time went on, the Mayas increased the thickness up to 20, 30 centimeters. To prepare that amount of stucco they had to burn a lot of green wood. To cover just one pyramid with stucco, they would have needed to cut down every tree in an area of 6.5 square kilometers.

The resulting deforestation, also aggravated by the agricultural needs of feeding a population of hundreds of thousands of people, led to the erosion and depletion of the soil, which at some point forced the Mayas to abandon their cities and emigrate.

TIERRAMÉRICA: Why did they use such excessive amounts of stucco?

RH: The only plausible explanation is, because they could. It’s the same explanation as for the behavior of rich people today who think they need a gold urinal in their bathrooms. Why do some people drive heavy duty vehicles in downtown Los Angeles? Because they can. But the example of the Mayas should lead us to think about the consequences of this excessive consumption.

TIERRAMÉRICA: The pieces on display here demonstrate the level of development of Maya art. How old are the artifacts exhibited and the cities they came from?

RH: El Mirador was abandoned around A.D. 150 and repopulated about 500 years later. The architecture from that second period consists of corbeled-vault stone buildings, sculptures and reliefs, and polychrome ceramics and pottery, similar to the illustrations in the four Maya codices.

The ceramic pieces include cups and plates for daily use, as well as ritual utensils. We believe all this pottery was produced in the city of Nakbé in the Mirador Basin.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What are the mathematical foundations of the architecture at El Mirador?

RH: We have discovered that the Maya knew about and regularly used proportions and correlations to construct their buildings. At El Mirador we excavated the most extensive urban complexes in the Americas of the time. In the Late Preclassic period, between A.D. 350 and A.D. 250, the Maya constructed buildings more than 70 meters high and built cities for hundreds of thousands of people, connected by many kilometers of roads.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What does the Mirador Basin represent in terms of the interpretation of Maya civilization?

RH: Until recently, the Maya were viewed as a people of hunters and gatherers. But the Mirador Basin demonstrates a very complex civilization, which developed a written language, a number system and extremely sophisticated art and architecture.

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