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The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context

The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context
    Book Description:

    InThe Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context,contributors reject the popularized link between societal collapse and drought in Maya civilization, arguing that a series of periodic "collapses," including the infamous Terminal Classic collapse (AD 750-1050), were not caused solely by climate change-related droughts but by a combination of other social, political, and environmental factors. New and senior scholars of archaeology and environmental science explore the timing and intensity of droughts and provide a nuanced understanding of socio-ecological dynamics, with specific reference to what makes communities resilient or vulnerable when faced with environmental change.Contributors recognize the existence of four droughts that correlate with periods of demographic and political decline and identify a variety of concurrent political and social issues. They argue that these primary underlying factors were exacerbated by drought conditions and ultimately led to societal transitions that were by no means uniform across various sites and subregions. They also deconstruct the concept of "collapse" itself-although the line of Maya kings ended with the Terminal Classic collapse, the Maya people and their civilization survived.

    The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Contextoffers new insights into the complicated series of events that impacted the decline of Maya civilization. This significant contribution to our increasingly comprehensive understanding of ancient Maya culture will be of interest to students and scholars of archaeology, anthropology, geography, and environmental studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-280-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. List of Contributors
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. 1 Introduction: Resilience, Vulnerability, and the Study of Socioecological Dynamics
    (pp. 1-20)
    Gyles Iannone

    This volume examines the developmental trajectory of ancient Maya civilization, with particular emphasis on two themes: climate change, specifically droughts, and what are deemed to have been a series of periodic “collapses,” including the infamous Terminal Classic collapse (AD 750–1050). The principal goal is to critical assess the drought-induced collapse models that have become increasingly popular of late—both within and outside of Maya studies—in light of our ever-more-comprehensive understanding of ancient Maya culture history. The aim is not to challenge the idea that severe droughts periodically impacted ancient Maya communities—this seems irrefutable given the multitude of...

  7. 2 The Dynamics of Ancient Maya Developmental History
    (pp. 21-50)
    James Aimers and Gyles Iannone

    Recently, a growing number of environmental scientists and archaeologists have invoked droughts to explain what have long been considered to be the most famous episodes of demographic or political decline in ancient Maya history, including the Late Preclassic abandonments, a Middle Classic “hiatus,” a Terminal Classic “collapse,” and the Late Postclassic abandonment of Mayapan (various sources can be found in Table 3.1; see also Adams et al. 2004; Kerr 2001; Lucero 2002; Shaw 2003). Richardson Gill has been one of the most influential advocates of what is usually called the “drought hypothesis” (Gill 1994, 2000; Gill and Keating 2002; Gill...

  8. 3 Assessing the Great Maya Droughts: Some Critical Issues
    (pp. 51-70)
    Gyles Iannone, Jason Yaeger and David Hodell

    For over thirty years a case has been building to suggest that various “collapses” occurred in the Maya subarea in the past and thatallof these cultural declines were the result of periodic and devastating “megadroughts”—a particular type of drought characterized by “extensive duration and magnitude” (Hunt and Elliott 2002:1). This “megadrought” model is founded on an array of detailed paleoclimatic studies that have been published at an increasingly rapid rate. Five major articles appeared on the subject between 1978 and 1983, and at least seven studies were published between 1990 and 1998. A veritable flood of major...

  9. 4 Agricultural Landscapes, Deforestation, and Drought Severity
    (pp. 71-86)
    Robert Griffin, Robert Oglesby, Thomas Sever and Udaysankar Nair

    Widespread deforestation can adversely affect the habitability of a landscape. In fact, the removal of tree cover should be viewed on par with global climate patterns for determining the water cycle in a region, particularly in the central portion of the Maya Lowlands. This premise justifies a study of ancient Maya land use and deforestation as related both to climate and to the Terminal Classic Maya collapse, the latter as seen in terms of population or dynastic decline. The linkages in this model are especially informative for the majority of the interior of Central America, where rainfall is to a...

  10. 5 Climate Change in the Ancient Maya Forest: Resilience and Adaptive Management across Millennia
    (pp. 87-106)
    Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh

    Mesoamerica and the Maya lowlands (Figure 5.1) have been home to humans since the first peopling of the Americas. Economic botanists, ecologists, and ethnologists have recognized this long and entwined relationship from the anthropogenic qualities of, and interactions with, the Maya forest (Atran 2003; Atran et al. 2001; Campbell et al. 2006; Gómez-Pompa and Kaus 1999; Nations and Nigh 1980; Ross 2007; see also Gómez-Pompa et al. 2003). This same forest is considered today among the world’s most biodiverse places and a conservation priority (Mittermeier, Myers, and Mittermeier 2000; The Nature Conservancy [TNC] 2008). Despite the long and dynamic relationship...

  11. 6 The End of the Beginning: Drought, Environmental Change, and the Preclassic to Classic Transition in the East-Central Maya Lowlands
    (pp. 107-126)
    Nicholas Dunning, David Wahl, Timothy Beach, John Jones, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach and Carmen McCane

    The Classic Maya “collapse” (or the “transitions and transformations” of the Terminal Classic period) has generated endless discussion since it was first detected in the calendrical record of Maya inscriptions many decades ago. More recently, advances in Maya archaeology have illuminated earlier disruptions marking the waning years of the Early Classic, the Late Preclassic, and perhaps the Middle Preclassic (see Aimers and Iannone, Chapter 2 in this volume). Although the nature of Terminal Classic events in the Maya Lowlands is far from completely understood, the earlier periods are much less clear—in part because perturbations in these times have been...

  12. 7 A Tale of Three Cities: Effects of the AD 536 Event in the Lowland Maya Heartland
    (pp. 127-156)
    Bruce H. Dahlin and Arlen F. Chase

    Directly linking climate change and cultural change is difficult. However, it is occasionally possible to link extraordinary climatic events to the archaeological record. The AD 536 event is such an instance. Given its global reach, impact from the AD 536 event had to have been felt in the Maya area. The archaeological records of three of the most important Maya cities that have been excavated—Calakmul, Caracol, Tikal—may be used to examine this impact. Although the developmental trajectories of all three significantly changed in the mid-sixth century, their paths reveal the pursuit of divergent sociopolitical and economic strategies relating...

  13. 8 Collapse without Drought: Warfare, Settlement, Ecology, and Site Abandonment in the Middle Pasion Region
    (pp. 157-176)
    Matt O’Mansky

    The current focus by some researchers on drought asthecausal factor in the transformation of Maya civilization in the Late and Terminal Classic periods has its origins in a lake core extracted from Lake Chichancanab, Mexico (Hodell, Curtis, and Brenner 1995). This was not the first time that climate change in general, or drought in particular, was cited as a key factor in the developmental trajectory of the ancient Maya (e.g., Armillas 1964; Covich and Stuiver 1974; Dahlin, Foss, and Chambers 1980; Deevey et al. 1979; Huntington 1913, 1924; Moriarty 1967), but the Chichancanab core provided hard scientific evidence...

  14. 9 The Classic Maya Collapse, Water, and Economic Change in Mesoamerica: Critique and Alternatives from the “Wet Zone”
    (pp. 177-206)
    Arthur A. Demarest

    Many previous discussions of the end of Classic period Maya civilization have failed to address the collapse issues in broader theoretical and culture historical perspectives. They also often have been unaware of the great variability in chronology and the layered nature of causality over the nearly three centuries of the process of termination of the Classic Maya political system. In this volume, however, the chapters’ authors have sought to create a historical and theoretical framework and context for the varied regional transitions or collapses in the final centuries of the Classic period. In this volume there is, in general, more...

  15. 10 Water in the West: Chronology and Collapse of the Classic Maya River Kingdoms
    (pp. 207-230)
    Andrew K. Scherer and Charles Golden

    This chapter is concerned with the problem of political collapse of the Classic period (ca. AD 250–900) Maya kingdoms of the western lowlands, a region that includes the extreme western edge of the Peten, Guatemala, northeastern Chiapas, Mexico, and much of Tabasco, Mexico. During the Classic period this area was home to a number of dynastic polities including those centered on Palenque, Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan, Tonina, Pomona, and Sak Tz’i’ (tentatively linked to the archaeological site of Plan de Ayutla), among others (Figure 10.1). The central question of this edited volume is whether various political and demographic upheavals of...

  16. 11 Oxygen Isotopes from Maya Archaeological Deer Remains: Experiments in Tracing Droughts Using Bones
    (pp. 231-254)
    Antoine Repussard, Henry P. Schwarcz, Kitty F. Emery and Erin Kennedy Thornton

    An increasing number of studies support the concordance between dry episodes in the Circum-Caribbean Basin and the political disruption of Maya society at the end of the Terminal Classic, during the period often called the “Classic Collapse” (e.g., Haug et al. 2003; Hodell, Brenner, and Curtis 2007; Neff et al. 2006). However, the exact sequence of events and their impacts on the Maya people are still largely debated (see Iannone [Chapter 1], Aimers and Iannone [Chapter 2], Iannone, Yaeger, and Hodell [Chapter 3], this volume). The aim of this chapter is not to discuss these issues, but rather to examine...

  17. 12 The Prehistoric Maya of Northern Belize: Issues of Drought and Cultural Transformations
    (pp. 255-270)
    Fred Valdez and Vernon Scarborough

    The environmental history of the Maya lowlands indicates that various drought episodes occurred during the course of Maya Civilization. The likely droughts have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Gill 2000; Webster 2002a), and serve as the basis for discussions concerning adaptations and developments among the prehistoric Maya. Although we believe that droughts occurred during Maya prehistory, we are not certain of the exact dating or of the nature/intensity of these events (see also Iannone, Yaeger, and Hodell, Chapter 3 in this volume). We do agree, however, that droughts played a part in some of the changes we see among the...

  18. 13 An Archaeological Consideration of Long-Term Socioecological Dynamics on the Vaca Plateau, Belize
    (pp. 271-300)
    Gyles Iannone, Arlen F. Chase, Diane Z. Chase, Jaime Awe, Holley Moyes, George Brook, Jason Polk, James Webster and James Conolly

    In recent years, a number of eminent scholars have urged archaeologists to focus more attention on the examination of long-term socioecological dynamics, particularly because they believe that such research will generate insights that will be crucial as contemporary society attempts to deal with issues such as declining resources, environmental degradation, and climate change (e.g., Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007b; Costanza et al. 2007; Dearing 2007; Diamond 2005; Hughes 2001; McAnany and Yoffee 2010b:8; McIntosh, Tainter, and McIntosh 2000b; Redman 1999; Rosen 2007; Sabloff 1998; Scheffer 2009:250; van der Leeuw and Redman 2002:597; Wright 2004; Young et al. 2007:449–50). According...

  19. 14 Tracking Climate Change in the Ancient Maya World through Zooarchaeological Habitat Analyses
    (pp. 301-332)
    Kitty F. Emery and Erin Kennedy Thornton

    Paleolimnological and paleoclimatological research has recently presented compelling arguments for alternating periods of dry and moist conditions throughout the history of occupation of Mesoamerica, and has effectively linked these to global climate phenomena. Certain periods of reduced precipitation have been suggested as correlating with (Brenner et al. 2002; Gill, 2000; Haug et al. 2003; Hodell, Curtis, and Brenner 1995; Leyden 2002), or even causing (Gill 2000; Gill et al. 2007), several important cultural transitions in the history of the ancient Maya civilization (see Aimers and Iannone, Chapter 2 in this volume). Although there can be no question that global climatic...

  20. 15 Maya Drought and Niche Inheritance
    (pp. 333-358)
    David Webster

    Two brief anecdotes to begin. First, I’ve lately been afflicted by filmmakers wanting advice about the Classic Maya collapse, probably because the (supposedly) doomsday year 2012 looms on their radar. Most recently I was called by a London filmmaker who was doing a program about drought and the collapse. He asked me: “Which big Maya site should I focus on to best tell this story?” Revealingly, given the prominence of drought explanations in the current literature (both professional and popular), I could think of no site where collapse and drought are clearly linked by direct, hard evidence. What I could...

  21. References
    (pp. 359-450)
  22. Index
    (pp. 451-466)