I wish I had tried harder in math class. I always said to myself that I would never have to use all those formulas in real life, but it turns out that it would have dramatically aided my appreciation of John Lowe’s book on the mystery of the collapse of Mayan Civilization, The Dynamics of Apocalypse: A Systems Simulation of the Classic Maya Collapse.
I usually enjoy historical works that focus on the bigger picture, or at least connect a smaller scale event to something larger. But I know its also important to turn the binoculars around sometimes, and Lowe’s book accomplishes this well. I don’t mind his narrow and technical focus. Had I understood more math (most of it appears to be geo-spatial formulas) I surely would have understood his arguments better, but he does a decent job of summarizing the conclusions of all his deductions.
The mystery surrounding the apparently sudden collapse of Mayan civilization draws many different theories. What makes the case more curious still is that certain areas of Mayan civilization continued to thrive after other areas stopped functioning practically on a dime. Some speculate that the Mayans simply abandoned some large urban areas for reasons unknown.
Lowe begins by dealing with various theories of collapse he rejects.
The Environmental Argument
Lowe admits that many archaeologists find themselves drawn to ecological arguments because the two sciences lend themselves to similar kinds of analysis. But the evidence points away from this. Rainfall remained steady or increased in depopulated regions. Perhaps one might wish to say that the abandoned areas had too much rain and got choked by the jungle, but no . . . other swampy Mayan population sites experienced no depopulation.
Some suppose an over-extension of farming or denudation of soil quality. But no–Rowe points out that the Mayans used different kinds of sophisticated farming techniques that would have kept soil relatively healthy. Of course some form of soil erosion took place. In fact, most of it took place in the northeast Petan region. But again–this region experienced depopulation last among Mayan cities.
Others suppose disease wiped out the Mayans. But if the Mayans had an interconnected civilization that remained relatively homogenous ethnically, why did this disease not wipe out all of them? Most of the truly virulent diseases have their roots in the Old World, and the Old World would not visit the Mayans until some 600 years after the Mayan collapse.
W.H. McNeil proposed something along the Roman model. As he saw it, disease was not solely responsible for Rome’s collapse, but contributed greatly to it. Two plagues struck Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. and had the net effect of depopulating the countryside, setting in motion a chain of events from which Rome was not culturally or politically healthy enough to recover from. But whereas we have plenty of internal evidence for the plagues in Rome, all of the written accounts we have from the Mayans indicate that disease played no factor. Some later sources indicate how healthy people were before the Spanish came. If we cannot rule disease out absolutely, we can safely call it unlikely to have contributed to a collapse.
Much of the rest of the book deals with the more sophisticated and slippery arguments surrounding Mayan beliefs. The basic approach of these scholars argues that, however much certain physical factors might have contributed, the main cause of the fall must have its roots in Mayan religious beliefs.
We know that, for example, the Mayans had a strong sense of cyclical time. D.E. Puleston argues that the general collapse came at the end of an important 250 year cycle, and perhaps the Mayans believed in the need for a general “reset” of their civilization. But the holes in this theory reside in that not all of the Mayans obeyed this “reset,” if it occurred. And other time cycles don’t quite fit the model, so Lowe finds this explanation lacking.
Others, seeing that very specific modeling of ideology can’t quite fit, propose a more general internal negative feedback loop, of sorts. Conditions deteriorate, which makes you double-down on the system of belief, which makes you pour more resources into that system that already leaks. The extra pressure on the system causes it to leak even more, leading to collapse. Rowe remains open to this approach, but it cannot arise to anything more than the level of a guess.
Rowe runs the risk of subjecting everything to such rigorous examination (and complicated mathematical formulas), that he runs the risk of cutting the beef so thin no one can see it. But he eventually gives some of his own theories, which rely on the historical city-state collapse model of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. Before examining this, I admire that someone with such an analytical bent as Rowe can consider some historical parallels and other paths that one cannot strictly measure.
The city-state model has the advantage of keeping both independence and interdependence at play simultaneously. This flexibility ideally can make them more creative and adaptive. They avoid putting all eggs in one basket, and can theoretically benefit from innovations other city-states make. But the intricacy of the system can make them vulnerable as well. The Greeks stopped cooperating and left themselves vulnerable to assimilation from the north (just as the Mayans from the south likely assimilated to the northern regions) in the form of Macedonia. When cooperation against a possible hegemon remained impossible or ineffectual, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
This may not be quite fair to Rowe. While I admire his book, Rowe is much more clear with his writing when critiquing other theories. He has had time stating a positive truth clearly, held back by all the possible caveats that no doubt lurk in his brain. I may not have read him accurately, especially at this point of the book.
I think his idea of a political collapse has merit, but I believe we need more focus on the ideological explanations. For example, one can say that the Mayans stopped cooperating, but they appeared physically able to do so if they wished. Why didn’t they, then? You can argue for the power of a northern Mayan hegemon akin to Alexander the Great, but the historical record doesn’t indicate this. Even if it did, it still could not explain why the Mayans could not cooperate.
Alas, I have nowhere near the familiarity with Mayan belief systems to propose anything specific. But I can suggest an analogous situation to illustrate my point with the Redskins and the NFL.
First, we can view the NFL as a civilization of city-states. The NFL has customs and laws shared by every team, but every team has its own independent leaders and cultures. Some teams are healthier than others, but all share in a degree of common fate. The city-state model roughly works.Now, the Redskins. In the early phases of their existence the team had a very modest amount of success. They entered their “golden era” around the early 1970’s, and it lasted until January 1992 with their last Super Bowl victory. I lived through this golden era and it was gloriously fun.
Such a run of success created an enormous cache of goodwill among the fans. I have no wish to make this anti-Dan Snyder post or to catalog the many abuses of fan goodwill and the terrible decisions from the late 1990’s until today. There is more here for those interested. But, many outward edifices of a successful team still appeared in place. Fans came to games, fans cheered their team, paid for jerseys, the team made money, etc. One of the puzzling things about the Mayan collapse is that certain elements of their civilization, such as the high quality of their pottery, lasted right up until the end. We see this too with Roman coins. They maintain their weight and intricate design for decades after most historians (with the possible exception of Gibbon) mark the beginning of the end.
This year the team started 6-3 and seemed playoff-bound in a weak NFC East. But underneath lay definite problems, such as terrible performances for key home games, fans and players feuding, etc. And then, suddenly, for the last game of the year–utter collapse, as Eagles fans outnumbered Redskins fans at least 2-1 in the Redskins stadium.
The Redskins had issues in the past with other teams’ fans buying up tickets. The problem came in spurts for different teams, especially big name teams like the Steelers. But for a divisional rival . . . nothing like this has ever come close to happening before.
Of course the NFL can absorb one terribly dysfunctional team. The NFL, for now, need not worry too much. Faith in the “shield” continues on. But, imagine a scenario where
- The Redskins don’t recover anytime soon and become dead weight in the league
- A few other franchises (perhaps Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, the Jets) slide into similar positions
- The concussion and player safety issue grows in importance
- Domestic abuse and other player issues continue
Then we might see a very sudden collapse of faith, and a sudden exodus from stadiums and television sets. One might imagine abandoned stadiums to accompany abandoned temples.