Mayans and ruling class stupidity

Magnus Göransson magnus.goransson at
Thu Apr 27 05:54:07 MDT 1995

This is a late contribution to the thread on Mayans and class-struggle
leading to barbary instead of progress. Sources are given at the end of the


An article in the New York Times illustrated a theory
proposed by John Perlin in his book,  "A Forest Journey: The Role
of Wood in the Development of Civilization" (Harvard University
Press, 1991 [1989]).  In his book Perlin details the rise and fall
of many civilizations through their destruction of the forests
that sustained them.

The following is the first part of the Times article followed by
some information about Perlin's book.

"Did Maya Doom Themselves by Felling Trees?" by [Times reporter]
William H. Honan, NYT, 11 April '95

Sub-head: "A new theory sees a self-inflicted ecological

Pull-quote: "In their zeal to build monuments, the Maya may have
buried themselves."

"Philadelphia, April 9 -- The collapse of the Maya civilization in
approximately A.D. 800 may have been caused by a self-imposed
ecological disaster, a research archaeologist says.

"Speaking to a group of 500 specialists in ancient Maya
civilization gathered here from around the world this weekend, Dr.
Richard D. Hansen, a research archaeologist as the University of
California at Los Angeles, said that in their zeal to create
magnificent architecture the Maya leveled forests to fuel the
fires with which they converted limestone into lime stucco.  The
process requires intense heat.

"The decline of the Maya seven centuries before the arrival of the
Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes has been one of the enduring
mysteries of archeology.  Specialists have focused on civil war,
changing trade routes and a top-heavy aristocracy as possible
major causes of the collapse.

"But Dr. Hansen, who had just returned from an excavation in El
Mirador basin in northern Guatemala, has tied the decline to the
very architecture that made the Maya famous.  The stucco was used
to create a smooth veneer on huge limestone pyramids, thick floors
and base-relief scenes of deities.  `The object,' Dr. Hansen said,
`was to display their wealth and power and to manipulate the
iconography so as to sustain the ruling class.'

"`You have to burn about 20 big trees and all their branches in
order to make only a little pile of lime about one meter high,' he
said.  `So they hacked down forests.'

"`The deforestation led to soil erosion and that filled in the
seasonal swamps where they had been collecting peat to fertilize
their terraced agricultural gardens,' Dr. Hansen said.  `They
messed in their nest and made these areas uninhabitable.

"`The first time this happened was in A.D. 150 to A.D. 250 and
then it appears to have been replicated in A.D. 800.'"

Source: Chiapas-95, sent by Vladimir Escalante <vladimir at>
who got it from Ronald Bleier <rbleier at>

And a short intro:
 I am a cynical optimist and a social democratic maoist. Probably the only
 swede in the group, too.
 Professionally, I am working with epidemiology and community health,
 trying to keep a class-oriented perspective there.
 Have been active socialist activist since the age of 15. Brought up
 politically in a mostly sound and relatively non-sectarian maoist spirit
 (yeah, I know you regard this as a contradiction in terms, but I'm proud
 of what we acheived). The last ten years I been a part of the editorial
 for a socialist periodical on health care issues, "Motpol". I am editing
 the final issue right now. (I do prefer organisation that accept to die
 when they have fulfilled their tasks, if development is impossible).
 Went out of activism when my present hero, Joel, was born some three years
 ago. Presently aiding a non-sectarian study group about the present
 political situations in Sweden with young social democrats and left-wing
 youths. Most, like me were (re-)activated in the referendum on the
 membership in the European Union.



Magnus Goransson * Department of Community Health Sciences, Lund University
* IKS, Malmo General Hospital, S-214 01 Malmo, SWEDEN * E-MAIL
magnus.goransson at * PHONE:+40331970 * FAX:+40336215, +40337096

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