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Blunderbuss "Godzilla's Attacking Babylon"
September 22, 1999

The Classica Maya collapse is well suited to the blunderbuss approach--where all sorts of small catastrophes and difficulties are loaded into a gun and discharged in a civilization-ending archaeological Gotterdämmerung. My friend Brian Fagan does a good job of this in his recent book, Floods, Famines, and Emperors:

"When the great droughts of the eighth and ninth centuries came, Maya civilization everywhere was under increasing stress. As we saw at Copán, the nobility was top-heavy and ridden with factionalism. Tikal's leaders were importing food from far away. Maya lords were demanding more and more from their subjects at a time of frenzied competition and military activity. They may have tried to standardize agricultural methods to increase crop yields, a strategy that could never work in such a diverse environment where the soils were already near exhaustion. The drought was the final straw."

It concerns me, however, when we draw morals from our interpretations: "The Maya collapse is a cautionary tale in the dangers of using technology and people power to expand the carrying capacity of tropical environments." In reaching for a moral, you might inject modern sensibilities into your interpretation. You might end up with a nice story--"Atmospheric circulation changes far from the Maya homeland delivered the coup de gràce to rulers no longer able to control their own destinies because they had exhausted their environmental options in and endless quest for power and prestige"--but it is it a dispassionate assessment of the data or simply a framing of it in an easily digested form, i.e. arrogant hubris-ridden elites risk being smacked down by the hand of nature or a re-telling of the Soviet collapse substituting environment for economy?

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America