Mayans and Environmental Destruction

Lisa Rogers EQDOMAIN.EQWQ.LROGERS at email.state.ut.us
Mon Apr 3 13:22:06 MDT 1995


------------------- MARXMAYA follows --------------------
I am somewhat familiar with Linda Schele's work on the Maya, as
well as with many other ecological disasters in (pre)history.
Schele spoke at UofU at the Tanner lectures about two years ago,
along with Jared Diamond and several others.  Each gave a talk on
their specialty and joined a panel discussion, with archeological
evidence for ecological disasters as a unifying theme.

Diamond was "the Tanner Lecturer" at the time and one of his
lectures was titled "Ecological suicides of societies" or something
close to that.  I highly recommend it.  It should be published by
now by the University of Utah Press in the series of books The
Tanner Lectures on Human Values, in the 1992 volume.  (The Tanner
lectures are given each year at 9 different institutions, but it's
funded by a foundation set up by a rich guy named Tanner, of one of
the "founding families" of Utah, so I guess that's why it is
published here.)  But I digress...

The role of ecological destruction in no way contradicts the role
of class struggle, revolution, etc., in the demise of the Mayan
city-states or any others.  It seems to me that environmental
damage and increased cost of living are factors that would only
increase class conflicts, etc.  From this point of view, these
things only inform a better analysis.  After all, shouldn't we
wonder "Why did class conflict escalate or cause collapse at that
time, not earlier or later?"  Enviro. damage is a likely
contributor, by way of its effects on wages, cost of living, etc.

At least two specific aspects of enviro. deserve consideration, and
both of them leave good archeological records - deforestation and
labor-intensiveness of agriculture.  All pre-fossil fuel
economies/societies/homes are run on wood-burning.  There is a huge
demand for wood exerted by any city.  It is the sole source for
cooking and heating, and most households burn wood almost
continuously.

Trees were also demanded as material (means of production), so
deforestation is not just a fuel problem.  Wood was needed then for
buildings, furniture, tools, plows, boats, bowls, and firing
pottery.  I can't think of any use of metals anywhere in the
Americas other than ornamental gold.

Around every ancient city there was a growing circle of
deforestation (evidenced in part by pollen samples from the
sediments of water bodies.)  Demand for wood has been modeled to
show how rapidly the circle of deforestation grows (and thus
distance to haul wood) given various population growth rates, etc.

Agriculture changes partly because cities start up in the middle of
the best farmland, and then drive farmers away.  The growing Mayan
cities (like many others) built and paved right over the easy,
level, fertile valley bottoms, so that food was produced farther
and farther away, on terraced slopes, with increasing amounts of
labor required for irrigation, transport of product, etc.  As these
systems become increasingly fragile, they are more easily
disrupted, by war, flood or neglect.

Combine deforestation with agriculture, and you get increasing
erosion and decreasing soil fertility.  I expect this would make
the status quo power relations more and more unstable in many ways.

The costs of food, materials and fuel go up and up.  All cities
were also death traps in terms of disease, surely including the
Mayans'.  Some of the carved stone stelae translated by Schele are
"adverts" trying to recruit people to move to the city - there was
clearly a shortage of soldiers, for one thing.  I don't know of any
evidence for people being forced off the land, into the city, but
I guess that "drafting" people in various ways could have occurred,
if the draftees had nowhere worthwhile to run to, or sufficent
threats to their families.  Of course, that is an expensive way to
recruit soldiers.

We know that Mayan city-states had on-going wars with each other,
possibly highly ritualized early on, when there was nearly equal
power.  Later there were likely blood baths.  As food, fuel,
materials and [therefore] labor became more expensive, I imagine
the warlords became more desperate to extract tribute, to conquer
each other or to monopolize trade.  Therefore, environmental
destruction could be expected to have effects on warfare.

Probably more experienced Marx-ian thinkers than I, can well
imagine the implications of the enviro/resource/subsistence/economy
for other aspects of society or behavior.

Very similar circumstances probably contributed to the fall of the
Romans, the Myceneans, the Babylonians (have you noticed what the
former "fertile crescent" looks like today? the cradle of
agriculture is now the desert of Iraq) and certainly Easter Island.
In the case of the Mayans, after the cities fell, the depopulated
valleys were naturally reforested within a few hundred years, and
today the population is increasing again, although still far below
the peak which the Mayans reached.  On the other hand, the Roman
fleets were built from the forests of Morocco, but it is now so
heavily populated, especially with goats, that forests cannot
possibly regenerate naturally under the status quo.

The semi-arid plateau around the huge Chaco Canyon ruins in the US
southwest will never again support a ponderosa pine forest because
the increased cutting of the river deeper into the plateau (partly
a result of the ancient deforestation itself) has lowered the water
table too far for trees to live at all.  (Ancient packrat middens
in caves provide evidence for the growing circle of deforestation,
otherwise it had been thought that the enormous timbers in the
buildings were hauled there over long distances.)

Again - these interactions with the environment are not intended as
complete explanations of everything that happened during the demise
of a society, but I expect these to be huge economic factors to
which people react.  I think anthropologists study these physical,
environmental things for several good reasons.  Specialism
(division of labor in science?) has some advantages, so each one
need not try to chew up the whole elephant in one bite.  Neither
should one claim that one's part is actually the whole thing.

Interactions of this sort have been neglected in the past, but
food, materials and fuel are essential resources for all human
production and reproduction, so Marxian thinkers may welcome this
kind of data and this point of view.

Archeologists may also look at subsistence partly because that is
where the light is - direct evidence of social structures and class
struggle just don't fossilize very well!  If one is interested in
trying to fill in the rest of the picture, please take the baton
and run with it!  (Of course, when there is not direct evidence,
reconstructions of the past will remain somewhat uncertain...)

Also, part of the point of studying ancient environments is to say
something about what is happening now.  Many people still think
that environmental destruction is a new thing for people, but it's
not.  The scale of destruction and the specific types of damage may
be new.  Also, the escapees/survivors of the Mayan cities had a
forest to go live in, and Polynesian islanders usually had another
island to move to, but today's worldwide population density has
changed the opportunities.

People generally have failed to be conservationists (for many
reasons I'll not go into now) but sometimes the devastated area has
recovered when people were removed.  Under some circumstances,
population growth, deforestation and local population crash (by
death or emigration), followed by reforestation and repopulation
could possibly form a cycle for an indefinite amount of time.  But
changes in technology may have "freed" us from direct dependence on
trees in some ways, so we can survive with much less use of wood
per person than before.  Deforestation is no longer necessarily
followed by population crash, and food can be imported from some
place that is not yet paved over.

I don't know how much of this addresses the specific questions that
anyone had in mind, but I hope this contributes to the
conversation,

Lisa Rogers



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