Why did the Maya abandon all their cities?

“No words are more calculated to strike dismay in the hearts of Maya archaeologists,” the Maya archaeologist David Webster confessed in 2002. Webster, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, admitted that during his “incautious younger years” he often told fellow airplane passengers that he was flying to work “at some ancient Maya center. Then, with utter predictability, [would come] the dreaded question. Nowadays, older and wiser, I usually mutter something vague about ‘business’ and then bury my nose in the airline magazine.”

One reason Webster avoided the question is its scope. Asking what happened to the ancient Maya is like asking what happened in the Cold War—the subject is so big that one hardly knows where to begin. At the same time, that very sweep is why the Maya collapse has fascinated archaeologists since the 1840s, when the outside world first learned of the abandoned cities in Yucatán. Today we know that the fall was not quite as rapid, dramatic, and widespread as earlier scholars believed. Nevertheless, according to Billie Lee Turner, a geographer at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, it was unique in world history. Cultures rise and fall, but there is no other known time when a large-scale society disintegrated—and was replaced by nothing. “When the Roman Empire fell apart,” he said, “Italy didn’t empty out—no cities, no major societies—for more than a thousand years. But the Maya heartland did just that.” What happened?

In the 1930s, Sylvanus G. Morley of Harvard, probably the most celebrated Mayanist of his day, espoused what is still the best-known theory: The Maya collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacity of their environment. They exhausted their resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled their cities en masse, leaving them as silent warnings of the perils of ecological hubris.

When Morley proposed his theory, it was little more than a hunch. Since then, though, scientific measurements, mainly of pollen in lake sediments, have shown that the Maya did cut down much of the region’s forest, using the wood for fuel and the land for agriculture. The loss of tree cover would have caused large-scale erosion and floods. With their fields disappearing beneath their feet and a growing population to feed, Maya farmers were forced to exploit ever more marginal terrain with ever more intensity. The tottering system was vulnerable to the first good push, which came in the form of a century-long dry spell that hit Yucatán between about 800 and 900 A.D. Social disintegration followed soon thereafter.

Recounted in numberless articles and books, the Maya collapse has become an ecological parable for green activists; along with Pleistocene overkill, it is a favorite cautionary tale about surpassing the limits of Nature. The Maya “were able to build a complex society capable of great cultural and intellectual achievements, but they ended up destroying what they created,” Clive Ponting wrote in his influential Green History of the World (1991). Following the implications of the Maya fall, he asked, “Are contemporary societies any better at controlling the drive toward ever greater use of resources and heavier pressure on the environment? Is humanity too confident about its ability to avoid ecological disaster?” The history of these Indians, Ponting and others have suggested, has much to teach us today.

Curiously, though, environmentalists also describe Native American history as embodying precisely the opposite lesson: how to live in a spiritual balance with Nature. Bookstore shelves groan beneath the weight of titles like Sacred Ecology, Guardians of the Earth, Mother Earth Spirituality,and Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. So strongly endorsed is this view of Native Americans that checklists exist to judge whether books correctly depict their environmental values. The Native Cultures Authenticity Guideline, for instance, assesses the portrayal of the “Five Great Values” shared by all “the major Native cultures” (including, one assumes, the Maya), one of which is “Getting Along with Nature”—“respecting the sacred natural harmony of and with Nature.” To be historically accurate, according to the guidelines, major native cultures must be shown displaying “a proper reverence for the gift of life.”

Indians as poster children for eco-catastrophe, Indians as green role models: the two images contradict each other less than they seem. Both are variants of Holmberg’s Mistake, the idea that Indians were suspended in time, touching nothing and untouched themselves, like ghostly presences on the landscape. The first two sections of this book were devoted to two different ways that researchers have recently repudiated this perspective. I showed that they have raised their estimates of indigenous populations in 1492, and their reasons for it; and then why most researchers now believe that Indian societies have been here longer than had been imagined, and grew more complex and technologically accomplished than previously thought. In this section I treat another facet of Holmberg’s Mistake: the idea that native cultures did not or could not control their environment. The view that Indians left no footprint on the land is an obvious example. That they marched heedlessly to tragedy is a subtler one. Both depict indigenous people as passively accepting whatever is meted out to them, whether it is the fruits of undisturbed ecosystems or the punishment for altering them.

Native Americans’ interactions with their environments were as diverse as Native Americans themselves, but they were always the product of a specific historical process. Occasionally researchers can detail that process with some precision, as in the case of the Maya. More often one can see only the outlines of history, as in the reconfiguration of the eastern half of the United States. These two paradigmatic examples are the subjects I turn to now. In both, Indians worked on a very large scale, transforming huge swathes of the landscape for their own ends. Sifting through the evidence, it is apparent that many though not all Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land. And they do have lessons to teach us, but they are not what are commonly supposed.

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