Friday, February 23, 2018

this is maya tale

I started my day in Tikal in a shower of irony.

As lots of water rained down on me in the stall, I chuckled. The very substance that may have been responsible for depopulating the great Maya cities was now cleansing me for my visit to one of the greatest of those cities. Tikal.

It is more than just a Stars Wars set. For centuries it was the Big Dog amongst the southern Maya city-states. Then, around 900 AD, it all came to an end. The people evacuated the city. The elite moved on. Some of the common people stayed in the area and attempted to eke out a poor living from a very unforgiving environment.

At its height, Tikal had a very sophisticated culture. Built at the junction of what anthropologists believe were major land trading routes, the city had a strict social hierarchy where people carried out their specific roles in the class into which they had been born. Authoritarian. Wealthy. Successful.

There is no sign of a huge slaughter that would be expected if the city had been overthrown in a violent invasion. There are no mass graves. No piles of human bones.

Some of Tikal's temples have signs of having been burnt. But that could have easily been a deconsecration ceremony conducted by the elite before they beat cleats.
There was plenty of warfare between the city-states. But none that resulted in the destruction of cities. Those conquests resulted in a new dynasty on the throne with life going on as it had before.

If you ask an anthropologist why the southern Mayan culture crashed into a wall, there is only one answer: no one knows for certain. But there are clues.

And those clues lead to a plethora of theories. Overpopulation. Change in trading routes. A hierarchical society that was incapable of dealing with changes. Overuse of natural resources. Drought. Alien abduction.

All are plausible -- except for the last one. The only people who credit the alien alliance tale are the same people who meet at midnight in their anti-Illuminati cells of three people -- two of which will resign next week to work on their campaign to abolish the verb "to be" as a cisgender conspiracy.

Asking the question is a bit like asking why the cold war ended -- or whatever happened to the Yankees in 1960? The factors are legion.

But before we start the autopsy, let's talk a little bit about what Tikal was. A resident of the city would have been surprised at the name we now use. Tikal was the Mayan word applied to the place when it was "discovered" by a chicle-hunter in 1848. The Maya called it Yax Mutal. But, we won't here. It would be too confusing.

People had lived in the area as early as 1000 BC with some monumental buildings (mainly temples) being built around 300 BC. But something happened in the first century AD that caused Tikal to grow. 

The most prominent theory is that as Tikal's more powerful neighbor cities declined, Tikal took advantage of its trade route position. That economic advantage was ameliorated by the establishment of a talented and long-lasting dynasty.

Tikal had a rival right from the start -- Calakmul (located in modern Mexico). For the next 800 years, they would be matched rivals for control of the southern Maya city-states. Yin and yang in an eternal struggle.

Even though Tikal was well-suited to control land trade routes and the surrounding area had rich soil, it (just like the rest of the Maya city-states) lacked a reliable source of water.

Tikal sits on the southern edge of the giant limestone plate that makes up the Yucatan peninsula. The limestone presented ready access to quarries of building stone. But it is a lousy place for storing water.

The area around Tikal gets five to six feet of rain a year. But it all percolates hundreds of feet through the limestone leaving no standing water to be used during the dry season.

The Maya solved that problem with a brilliant bit of engineering. Someone had the great idea of plastering the bottom of depressions in the jungle to create a reservoir. The Maya then used that same technique to pave the bottom of quarries to create even grander reservoirs that were incorporated as water features into the city's impressive architecture.

The whole complex was then joined together by raised causeways combining each portion of the complex together as one unit. The effect was that Tikal was a series of civilized islands in an inhospitable jungle.

Then came a day that would turn out to be one of the city's great turning points.

Tikal had been a trading partner with the great city of Teotihuacan (we know it for its magnificent -- and badly reconstructed -- Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon) since around 200 AD. On 14 January 378 a Teotihuacan army marched into Tikal. The next day, the leader of Tikal was dead and the son of the ruler of Teotihuacan sat upon his throne. Founding a new dynasty.

At least, that is what we think happened. Unlike many of their neighboring civilizations, the Maya had a very sophisticated writing system consisting of what early archaeologists thought were hieroglyphs. And the guess was close enough to be accurate.

The problem is that no one living knew the written language. It took a Russian cryptographer to decode the symbols. In the decades since then, the Maya have revealed a lot of their history.

In the early years, anthropologists treated the Maya as people of the Elysian fields. Peaceful residents of Athens. While the Aztecs played the role of bellicose Sparta.

It turns out the Maya were every bit as blood-thirsty as the Aztecs -- perhaps, a bit less so when it came to religious sacrifices. But the Maya were a warring people. Peaceful means were used to attract alliances with other city-states and to pull in smaller satellites. But warfare was a regular part of Tikal's life.

When the Teotihuacan leader assumed the throne, Tikal began gathering allies. Feeling threatened (and with a large dose of xenophobia against the foreign intruders), Calakmul went to war with Tikal in a series of battles that would last for almost 600 years.

During that period, Tikal attained its glory. That is apparent from the large complex that we see today -- and what we see is only about 15% of the urban area. But it is the ceremonial area where the elite lived and worshiped. At its height, 450,000 people may have lived in the greater Tikal area.

What we see today in the acropolis area is built on 23 different layers of construction. That is a common technique in Mesoamerica. Every 20 years, the Maya would add another temple complex to the city -- always in the same pattern. A palace to the north, a temple to the east, another palace to the south, and another temple to the west. All forming a Maya cross.

But the acropolis is what amazes most people. In the center is a large plaza with round stones where honored humans would be sacrificed to please the gods. The deceased blood and heart were then mixed with copal and burned at the top of one of the pyramid temples. (It was an honor because the Maya believed a sacrificial death would speed them on the path to reincarnation.)

The prosaically named Temple Number One is a star of the acropolis. It was completed around 750 as the burial place of one of Tikal's greatest rulers: Jasaw Chan K'awil. 

It is immense. About 154 feet high topped by what must have been a stunning roof comb.

Unlike most Maya pyramids, this one was not only a temple, it was the resting place of the leader. Several treasures were discovered, including this jade mask that has made the cover of many magazines.

Facing Temple Number One is -- wait for it -- Temple Number Two. 
Jasaw Chan K'awil built this temple around 700 to commemorate the death of his wife. No body has been found in the temple leading archaeologist to believe it was meant only as a memorial.

We climbed Temple Number Two with the help of some very modern wooden stairs. The view was worth the 100 or so steps.

The largest temple (Temple Number 4), completed around 741, is currently the largest standing temple in pre-Colombian America at 230 feet. It commemorates the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, the son of Jasaw Chan K'awil.
You might note how all of those dates are clustered together in the 700s. That is not an accident. That was when Tikal was at its height militarily and politically. During the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, Tikal had its greatest economic and military expansion.

But, all of that came at a cost. Unlike the Inca and the Aztecs, Maya society did not have standing armies. They were a Second Amendment people. When military business needed to be done, the leader would call up the militia from their regular social tasks and would then march with them to do what needed doing.

The rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began taking its toll on both city-states. The power ebbed and flowed depending on the military strength of each. But, within a century of Tikal's climb to the top, it was apparent it was all over. By 900, the great city had been abandoned to the jungle and the spider monkeys.

There are lots of theories. And most of them suffer from the anachronist heresy. Whatever is politically vogue in contemporary society tends to cloud our vision of the past.

The most prominent theory once was the weather. Between 800 and 900, the Maya world suffered a full century of drought. In an area with no standing water, that would be disastrous -- like living on the moon.

But that theory has been somewhat debunked because the city-states to the north that have even fewer water resources thrived during the same period. Some anthropologists claim that was because the social structure in the north was more egalitarian and far less hierarchical. The southern cities were truly Spartan in that respect. Authoritarian hierarchies honoring military accomplishment.

An auxiliary theory is that overpopulation caused the Maya to unwisely use their resources. Clearing more land to feed even more people changed the environment so much that the land could no longer support the population.

The problem with that theory is that it is entirely conjecture. Some try to tie the drought to the overpopulation theory, but that still does not explain why the northern cities were more successful at surviving.

There is also the possibility that the method of trade changed. The Maya eventually turned into great sailors. At least, along the Yucatan coast. Much in the same way that the railroad lessened the value of canals.

There was no longer a need for land routes. The elite packed up and moved to greener pastures.

Ironically, there are people (usually ready to make anti-NAFTA arguments) who blame the whole decline on the free market and trade that followed the Teotihuacan invasion. But that is an ideological argument not based on any data.

The chances are that all of these theories are far too simple to explain a complex result. They may all be correct, but only in part.

Remember those reservoirs the Maya developed to provide water? They were not designed for a 100 year drought. But there were 14 of them, and they would have carried the population through a long period.

The reservoirs and the canals that connected them required constant repair. But if the militia had been called up for protracted periods of war, there is no doubt the infrastructure would have suffered.

And, under the best of circumstances, Tikal might have even survived the leaky pipe syndrome. But in 800, Tikal did not have the best circumstances. It was weakened by constant warfare and then a protracted drought. If the natural resources had been overextended, that would have paid a negative part. Along with overpopulation.

Athens would have understood the lesson. As would have Sparta. War drains the very lifeblood of any society. For Tikal, it was water.

The result was that there was no sense in staying in a dying city. It was as if Scotty could not repair the life support system on the Enterprise. The only thing left to do was to leave. Having no escape pods, the Maya walked away. We just do not know where they all went.

That ironic showerthat started this piece? Thinking about Tikal, I decided it would be appropriate to memorialize them with a Navy shower.

Small measures for a great people.

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