Forwarded from Jurriaan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jun 4 07:56:01 MDT 2001

Julio Huato:
>IMO, experts have two main hypothesis about the decadence of the Mayan
>civilization: (1) environmental disasters affecting agriculture and (2)
>inability to keep the empire together because of rebellious attacks by
>neighbors.  Obviously, if (2) happened to any significant extent, then what
>you call a 'not hierarchical' social structure was a very hierarchical
>structure in disarray.  The peak of their prosperity is associated with the
>theocratic and militaristic empire and with the building of the
>infrastructure you mentioned.  And a 'kingdom' that is not hierarchical is a
>contradiction in terms.

This is what I was afraid of. As we know, Julio--despite having Indian
blood--has demonstrated his belief here that the best thing for Indians is
to be assimilated as wage workers into capitalist society and get a proper
education so as to vote properly for socialist or progressive candidates on
election day. In order to defend this analysis, he draws from the same
biased scholarship that presents Indian civilization as self-destructive
and despotic.

For example, in an article that gained wide attention in the New York
Review of Books, Gary Wills characterized Kirkpatrick Sale's "The Conquest
of Paradise" as romantic hogwash because it did not deal with Aztec
sacrifice or the Mayan tendency to waste fertile land with senseless
farming methods. The general conclusion you are left with is that it was a
good thing that Columbus discovered the New World and rescued the savages
from complete destruction.

More recent scholarship has refuted this notion of wasteful use of soil and
other resources, especially that presented by Robert J. Sharer in the 892
page "The Ancient Maya", which I recommend to anybody interested in the
topic. Sharer is Professor of Anthropology, and Curator of the American
Section of the University Museum and Anthropology at the University of
Pennsylvania. He reads Mayan hieroglyphics and began work on the 5th
edition of "The Ancient Maya" in 1980, which was finally released in 1994
after 15 years of research. He writes:

A variety of ecological disasters has been proposed to explain the Maya
demise. The earliest pointed to the harmful consequences of swidden
agriculture, which is believed to have been the basis of lowland
subsistence at one time. Its arguably destructive long-term effects on soil
fertility and in turn the gradual conversion of forested areas into savanna
grasslands have been used to explain the failure of Classic Maya
civilization. Since the Maya had no tools with which to cultivate the
grasslands, so this argument goes, farmers would eventually have been
forced to abandon the central lowlands. Other supposed effects of swidden
cultivation in combination with the heavy tropical rainfall of the lowlands
were severe erosion and the deposition of soil into what would formerly
have been shallow lakes, yielding the swampy depressions (bajos) found in
many areas of the lowlands today. The question whether or not all these
depressions were originally shallow lakes, at least within the span of Maya
civilization, is yet to be resolved. In any event, the ecological-disaster
theories based on swidden cultivation can no longer be supported, given the
recent evidence that the agriculture practiced by the ancient Maya was both
diversified and intensive...

The intensive agricultural methods known or suspected to have been used by
the ancient Maya include continuous field cultivation, household gardens,
arboculture, and hydraulic modifications.

In continuous field cultivation, crops are grown with fallow periods of
sufficiently short duration that the fields do not become overgrown, a
method that requires constant labor to weed out the competitors of the food
crops. At least in areas with well-drained, fertile soils and plentiful
rainfall, the ancient Maya could have practiced this method of cultivation.
Prime candidates for this method would have been alluvial valleys, like
those found in various parts of the southern and coastal lowlands. There,
on the natural river levees and on the older terraces (of former riverbeds)
found above the localized or extensive floodplains of such rivers as the
Usumacinta, the Motagua, the Belize, and their tributaries, continuous
field cultivation would have been very productive; periodic flooding in
these areas would replenished soil fertility by depositing new alluvial
soils. The lowest portions of active floodplains (backswamps) are often too
wet for too much of the year to allow cultivation without hydraulic
modifications (see below). Where older alluvial soils were no longer being
replenished by flood deposits, their nutrient depletion could have been
controlled by proper intercropping...

As far as Aztec, Mayan and Incan societies being "hierarchical", there can
be no doubt about this. That is the nature of feudal or "tributary"
societies. However, the key difference between such societies and the
capitalist system that was installed after their annhilation is that the
latter system forced Indians to work until exhaustion or death. The silver
mines of Mexico were operated on the basis of commodity production, while
under the Aztecs they were operated to produce use-values. The main problem
with feudalism is that it is an inefficient use of labor power. Under
Christian feudalism, serfs enjoyed up to 200 holidays a year, according to
Michael Perelman's "Invention of Capitalism". Under Spanish colonial rule,
Indians worked 12 hours a day all year long until they died of exhaustion.
This is not feudalism. It is a slave labor camp, a version of Auschwitz for
the 1600s.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list