Lessons from Travels: Mayan Civilization

by Carl Strang

As I recall from elementary school history class many decades ago, we were given the impression that Europeans brought civilization to the New World. That may be true if “civilization” is equated with European culture (i.e., circular reasoning). Today I look at such things biologically, and long have regarded civilization as the evolution of any culture that creates the illusion of division between people and nature. In general that means the construction of an architecturally elaborated space in a part of the landscape that has been cleared of its wild vegetation. It also depends upon the previous establishment of agriculture (artificial selection of certain wild plants and animals to the point where they are domesticated), which allows people so to concentrate their populations. By that definition, there were many civilizations in North, Central and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans. Today I want to focus on vestiges of ancient Mayan civilization I saw in Central America.

This is the view from a tall Mayan building at Tikal, in Guatemala. Today the surrounding space is filled with forest. If it looks familiar, it may be because this spectacular scene was included in one of the Star Wars movies.

Over the years, many Mayan towns and cities have been discovered buried in the vegetation.

This building was uncovered at a smaller site in Belize.

By measures of architecture, agriculture, the technology required to shape and move masses of stone, and the social organization needed to accomplish these things, Mayans were thoroughly civilized.

This building alone, one of several enormous structures at Tikal, is a wonder. The climb those people are making is very steep and up huge steps clearly designed to inspire awe.

They had written language and mathematics as well.

Mayan writing, designed to last.

Recent research suggests that the drought which ended this civilization may not have been extreme. All it took was a reduction in summer rainstorms so that the reservoirs dried out. The intensive agriculture needed to support so many people in cities collapsed. Over time, a vast region that had been cleared for civilization was reclaimed by the forest. At least there were remnants of forest sufficient to do the reclaiming.

Do I need to state the lesson plainly? These people did not have an inferior or faulty civilization. In every significant respect it was the equivalent of ours. They no doubt assumed, as we do, that the Universe supported them and their way of living, and it would go on forever (or at least until 2012, small joke there). Their huge concentrated population was balanced upon the climatic conditions that supported their technology. As we can see, that balance was easily upset. They had removed their forests, which in part set up the drought, the climate change, which defeated them. Their descendants survived because they could fall back on an earlier, more dispersed way of living, and they had not completely trashed their soil and landscape. Their population was in the tens of thousands, rather than billions.

Some of the Lessons from Travels are chilling.

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