revolt against civilization

Steve.Keen at unsw.edu.au Steve.Keen at unsw.edu.au
Mon Mar 13 15:37:26 MST 1995


Alex recently posted a comment on the decline of the Mayan civilisation,
attributing it to a peasant revolt. My reply is only "armchair
antropology"--quite literally; but I saw a TV documentary on
recent digs in the Mayan valley which found that, over a period of
centuries, the crop yields fell significantly, and as they fell,
so did the population.

The same phenomenon was in evidence again today in the same valley,
where population levels have risen to roughly those of the peak of
the Mayan civilisation (apparently about 25-30,000). Initially
very high yields have progressively fallen as cropping has become
more intensive (and this has happended much more quickly than
in the Mayan time because immigration has been the source of
population growth--i.e., movement into the valley from outside).

Apparently the Mayan population decline occurred over a period
of centuries, whereas the popular view beforehand was a
precipitous decline (as would occur with a revolt).

The new explanation still has its "marxian" side, of course:
the Mayan civilisation was an agrarian one, and the agrarian
surplus supported the formation of the religious ruling class.
The initial agrarian technology (slash and burn, with large
fallow periods, from memory) was compromised by population
growth, leading to shorter fallows, more sedentary agriculture,
and as a result, falling yields. The falling yields meant less
surplus (though we can be sure the peasantry were the first
to suffer--I'm sure there were still some revolts as a result),
and hence a decline of the civilisation.
Cheers,
Steve Keen


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