The Yucatan: Are We the Modern Maya?


computerby Gary Stamper

In early February, Carolyn Baker, my wife Anyaa, and I will be hosting a diverse group of people from Australia, the UK, Germany, and the U.S. on a 10-day journey to the northern Yucatan to visit several ancient sacred Mayan archeological sites, cenotes (underground rivers), beach villages, mangroves, and more.

We’ll be staying at a charming bed & breakfast hotel in the magical colonial town of Izamal. What makes Izamal a magical town? It is alive with three cultures: the ancient Mayan, the Spanish colonial, and the present day bustling Izamal. Built on Mayan Ruins, you only have to enter the town to feel its magic. Izamal will be our home base for the first eight days of our journey.

On our first full day in Izamal, we’ll be doing a Mayan Purification Ceremony with our guide, Israel, who is a Mayan Shaman, and very knowledgeable about plant medicine (no, we won’t be doing that kind of a ceremony), and an expert guide.

One of the reasons I’m going there is to try to get a better first-hand understanding of why the Maya collapsed, and to see what kind of conclusions we can draw from their demise and how it might relate to what many see as an impending global collapse.

The Maya civilization began around 2000 B.C. in what is known as the Preclassic period of Mayan prehistory. The last of the Maya collapse – the post-classic period – was due to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the late 16th century. That part of what happened to the Maya is well documented, but the decline of the Classic Mayan civilization occurred around 1000-1100 A.D.. where the Mayan empire collapsed and was seemingly swallowed by the jungle after centuries of urban, cultural, intellectual and agricultural evolution. We are still discovering ancient Maya cities today hidden in those jungles.

Early theory on the demise of the Classic Mayan Civilization suggested soil erosion as the cause of their demise: chopping down forests to create farmland that resulted in soil erosion.

However, recent studies show little erosion during the Terminal Classic period, and although a variety of explanations have been suggested, long-term drought currently remains the most accepted theory of their downfall. The Classical Mayan civilization ended with gradual depopulation and a shift of political power to northern parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, which continued until the arrival of the Spaniards.

Scientists are now beginning to agree that the Maya collapse has many roots, all intertwined—overpopulation, warfare, famine, drought. At the moment, the hottest field of inquiry centers on climate change, perhaps of the Maya’s own doing, and speculation is that the collapse years were characterized by repeated and, at times extreme, drought. Agriculture declined and—not coincidentally—social conflict rose.

Even in the beginning of the drought years, the Maya were a society in deep trouble and were “living on the absolute edge,” and when the short-term droughts turned into long-term droughts, it pushed the Mayan society over that edge.

By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Maya population had decreased by 90%.

Experts are still debating the reasons behind the Mayan collapse, but it’s interesting that the Maya have been said to have been “living on the edge,” with many crises all coming together at the same time. In my opinion, we are in a very similar situation, and that is one of the reasons I’m so excited to explore this some more on our trip. My own thoughts are that – like us – they were already collapsing on many fronts, and any one of those many fails could have pushed their civilization over that “edge,” and it just happened to be drought that was the tipping point. Many accounts refer to the lack of adequate water supplies, the social-economic failure of an elite hierarchy, soil depletion, over population, war, and more.

Many experts are quick to point out that what happened to the Maya cannot happen to us, that the Mayan situation is not applicable today, because our society is so radically different. Some point out that the Maya did not disappear, they just moved “to the beach,” and never went back to their cities.

Some even say that our technology will save us, that in spite of climate change, drought, superstorms, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels and water and air temperatures, that we’ll find a way to pull through this, to continue to operate under a system of infinite growth in spite of the fact that we live on a planet of finite resources.

I’m no Luddite, but I posit that it is largely that the technology, and our inability to manage it wisely, is what has brought us to where we are today.

As our own climate change problems moves toward total collapse, modernity is clearly coming up against the same issues the Maya had around resources, wars, overpopulation, climate change, soil depletion, societal collapse, and more, with one frightening difference:

Instead of collapsing one culture, we have multiple cultures and the potential to collapse the entire planet that we depend on for our own survival, not just one culture, and we have forgotten that we are all connected to one another. For the first time in our known history, what happens now is not limited to one culture in one geographic location. What happens to one, happens to all.

Rhinos, elephants, orcas…daily extinctions…Greece, Ukraine, Mid-east…polluted streams and rivers…oceans… economic wars…for now…dwindling resources including water…soil depletion…people living on $2 dollars a day…the rich getting richer…bubbles everywhere…demise of the middle class…climate change…the periphery of everything is no longer holding, and the centers begin to tremble under their own bloated weight on unsustainable legs that cannot possibly support them much longer.

Yes, this time is different. This time it’s real.

Perhaps hundreds or thousands of years from now, someone will find the remnants of our global civilization and wonder at our foolishness, “How could they have been so stupid, so careless?”

Meanwhile, why go to the Yucatan while all of this is going on? Much of this past year for me has been a year of coming to terms with collapse, not from a cognitive perspective, but from a heart and a grieving perspective. I think by going, I’ll be saying through the Mayan collapse and to the Maya, in a way I cannot do from home, that we are connected, that they are not alone.

And neither am I.

I think I’ll join them at the beach.
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Resources:
B.L. Turner II – Bio
Why the Maya Fell: Climate change, Conflict – and a Trip to the beach?
Maya May Have Caused Civilization-Ending Climate Change
Climate Change and the Decline of Mayan Civilization
Rapid Climate Change and the Collapse of the Maya Civilization
Climate Change Killed off Maya Civilization, Study Says

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5 Responses to “The Yucatan: Are We the Modern Maya?”

  1. Caroline Courtright Says:

    Gary, good article, thank you. A little more than a year ago I went to Chaco Canyon for much the same reason. For Chaco the reasons are similar and the time period is the same, Reasons of climate change/drought and the fact that the had cut down all the trees in a days walking distance. There is evidence that the people of Chaco were trading with mesoamerica, probably as far south as the Maya. Very interesting. It seems the Mayans also forgot they were connected to each other, their cities had separate rulers and motivations. Frankly I think anytime you have a culture that makes live sacrifices, human or animal, the web of all life is forgotten.

  2. Judith Magann Says:

    Gary, I appreciated this article as context to our Yucatan journey. I have another reference that might be helpful:
    Excavations Challenge Views of Maya Development at
    news.nationalgeographic.com.

  3. Gary Stamper Says:

    Judith, I’ll check it out! Thanks.

  4. Afi Faur Says:

    Pity world! I’m totally agree with Caroline’s statement,
    “Frankly I think anytime you have a culture that makes live sacrifices, human or animal, the web of all life is forgotten.”

  5. Gary Stamper Says:

    …and here we are today, destroying the planet’s ecosystem that is supposed to sustain us, sending young men off to die for capitalism and empire, killing unarmed black men in our cities, creating more and more poverty, and watching our country slide deeper and deeper into fascism and totalitarianism…How far have we come? we should be careful not to be too smug or superior.

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