Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Maya collapse: When theoretical preconceptions get in the way of understanding

I just read a very nice summary of some of the current debates over the role of droughts in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization:

Pringle, Heather (2009) A New Look at the Mayas' End. Science 324:454-456.

It looks to me like the field may be moving toward a more reasonable explanation of the Maya collapse. Nevertheless, reading the remarks from Pringle's interviews with some of the scholars involved shows that an old problem still has a major effect on the issue. That problem is when one's theoretical perspective (or preconceptions) largely determine one's understanding of a phenomenon, with only tenuous connections to the data. There have long been two polar positions on drought and the Maya collapse:

(1) Many climatologists tend to think that a serious drought will cause a society to collapse. When they identify drought conditions close in time to the Maya collapse, then the issue is resolved. The drought caused the collapse. Period. End of story. Maya society must have been sufficiently fragile to be knocked out by an environmental disater, so why waste time with special pleading. Scholars with this perspective have a rather narrow, deterministic view of causality and social change.

(2) Many archaeologists tend to think that people are creative and can find solutions to environmental and social problems. Perceptions and impacts of the environment are culturally constructed and culturally mediated. The Maya people were were creative and their society was resilient, and thus environmental problems or disasters could never cause a collapse by themselves. Scholars with this perspective often have a narrow, non-materialistic view of causality and social change.

Now almost everyone will immediately claim that the best explanation is somewhere in between these two extreme views, but just where will it lie along the continuum? Read Pringle's report and see what you think. I am not going to take sides or point fingers here (mainly because I don't have time right now; it would be fun to take an skeptical outsider's perspective on the Maya collapse). If you are interested, I list below a few of the relevant publications.

Oh, one more thing. There is now a revisionist claim that the Maya didn't really collapse (e.g., Aimers 2007). Well, what happened to the millions of people? Why were scores of cities abandoned? Why did much of elite culture disappear? To me, this is an absurd claim, analogous to the claim that Rome didn't really collapse (see Ward-Perkins 2006 for the archaeological evidence againts revisionist claims about the lack of a Roman collapse). But I guess if the Maya didn't collapse, then we don't have to worry about the cause of that non-collapse.

So, what does this have to do with archaeological publishing? Although there is some overlap, scholars promoting the two views outlined above tend to publish in different journals and volumes. They tend to write for different audiences, and they generally employ different kinds of data and distinct style of argument. Many writers seem more interested in defending a position than in an open exploration of the issues. For this reason I suspect that advances will come from new kinds of data ("Ultralocal paleoclimate indicators" in Pringle's report), and from young or outside scholars who are not yet firmly entrenched in the debates.


Aimers, James J. (2007) What Maya Collapse? Terminal Classic Variation in the Maya Lowlands. Journal of Archaeological Research 15:329-377.

Demarest, Arthur A. (2001) Climatic Change and the Classic Maya Collapse: The Return of Catastrophism (review of The Great Maya Droughts by Richardson B. Gill). Latin American Antiquity 12:105-107.

Diamond, Jared (2004) The Maya Collapses. In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, edited by Jared Diamond. Viking, New York.

Gill, Richardson B. (2000) The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Gill, Richardson B., Paul A. Mayewski, Johan Nyberg, Gerald H. Haug and Larry C. Peterson (2007) Drought and the Maya Collapse. Ancient Mesoamerica 18:283-302.

Manahan, T. Kam (2004) The Way Things Fall Apart: Social Organization and the Classic Maya Collapse of Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica 15:107-126.

Peterson, Larry C. and Gerald H. Haug (2005) Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization. American Scientist 93:322-329.

Rice, Prudence M. (2007) The Classic Maya 'Collapse' and its Causes. In Gordon R. Willey and American Archaeology: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and William L. Fash, pp. 141-186. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Scarborough, Vernon L. (2007) The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Maya: A Case Study in Poliltical Ecology. In Sustainability or Collapse? An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, edited by Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich and Will Steffen, pp. 51-60. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Webster, David (2002) The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan (2006) The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford University Press, New York.

8 comments:

Johan Normark said...

Interesting post. I do have a longer comment on my own blog.

Stefano Costa said...

IMHO, Ward-Perkins 2006 presents some archaeological evidence for a sudden collapse of the Roman Western society at the beginning of the 5th century (largely due to military losses against "barbarians") which is exactly the opposite of what one would expect from a serious book on the subject.

And no, I'm not claiming that Rome didn't collapse, just that archaeological evidence in the Mediterranean is almost never about sudden collapses.

His "Fall of Rome" is perhaps more about 21th century culture and archaeology: the last chapter is revealing, particularly when he complains about the lack of study of classics in the nowadays' education system (a point one can agree with or not, but which has little to do with the fall of Rome).

Juliana said...

I think Aimers take is not quite as revisionist as all that. He certainly agrees that the Southern and Western Maya Lowlands under went a collapse, but the Northern Lowlands and some coastal areas in Belize continued to thrive and even expand after the fall of the South. Yes, when most people think of the Maya, they think of the Southern Lowlands. True that the North and Coastal areas have distinct climatic and environmental conditions from the South. However, just as it is misleading to deny that the Southern Lowlands were devastated, it may be as misleading to ignore the regional variation among Maya centers.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, my sense as an outsider is that many Mayanists are uncomfortable with the notion that Maya society "collapsed." (I think Aimer's words are that the Maya "did not collapse", p.351). The fact that some regions appear NOT to have collapsed does not have any bearing on whether the southern lowlands DID collapse or not. Unless someone has claimed that "every single Maya site and region underwent a catastrophic collapse", the arguments stressing regional diversity and downplaying collapse are refuting an argument that no one has made, thereby diverting attention from the collapse that (presumably) did happen.

But then what do I know? I'm just an Aztec interloper into the rarefied atmosphere of the Classic Maya I have been taken to task (in a book review by Susan Milbrath in Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 33, 2008) for butting into Maya studies and criticizing people unfairly instead of keeping to the Aztecs, where I belong.

Johan said...

The anti-collapse argument has grown in popularity in recent years, probably as a reaction to Gill’s mega-drought hypothesis. Enrique Nalda (INAH), who is directing the excavations at Ichkabal, says that the research at this major site “may end the Maya Collapse myth, which points out that great ceremonial centers were abandoned by the end of Classic period, around 900 AD, remaining like that until European contact”. This site is located in the border area between the southern and northern lowlands. However, I am skeptical to the idea that no major decline in settlement density occurred at (or rather around) the site. Yes, they might detect continuity of settlement in the site core but I doubt that the rural areas were as densely populated in Postclassic times.

Jim Aimers said...

I have great respect for Dr. Smith's Aztec work but I'd suggest that perhaps he look a little closer at the Maya "collapse" literature and broader works on collapse. His complaints about my article are more in line with the state of the Maya collapse debate in the 1980’s than now. Thanks to Juliana for a nice rebuttal.

I was clear in my article (which attempted to provide a summary of this huge literature rather than push some “revisionist” agenda of my own), that there were many instances of site abandonment at the end of the Classic (especially in the southern lowlands), but that this was not consistent across the lowlands, took about 300 years, and left many institutions and practices that continued into the Postclassic. In this sense there was no general, rapid Maya collapse. That point is far from controversial or revisionist—as the quote that opens the paper shows it has been in the Maya literature since the 1970’s.

As for the points Smith raised in his blog entry: I refer in the article to the idea that the “collapse” was for the most part an elite collapse, and I do ask where the people went, noting that population movements are evident. People probably died but the problem for archaeologists is that we currently don’t have any evidence for massive die-offs, just reduced settlement in some areas that could be explained by migration.

The ironies of Smith’s comments are striking. Firstly, in a blog on archaeological publishing a quote of mine from a longer passage is taken out of context, thus distorting its meaning. For the record, here is the full passage which cautions against the sorts of simplistic views of collapse that Smith suggests I hold:

“Asking ‘‘Why did the Maya collapse?’’ is rather like asking ‘‘Why did the Maya disappear?’’ Answers are difficult because the questions are inappropriate. The millions of Maya alive today are the descendants of a civilization that did not collapse at the end of the Classic, although it was transformed to varying degrees, in different places, at different times. The task ahead is not to seek simple answers to simple questions but to weave together the diverse strands of those transformations into a complex whole. When we give ourselves enough distance from our individual sites and regions, we will begin to see the patterns and processes that set the stage for both continuity and change in the Maya lowlands in the centuries following A.D. 750. “ (Aimers p, 351)

Secondly, I was a participant in the symposium that Pringle was writing about—- in fact I wrote the introductory chapter with Dr. Gyles Iannone, the symposium organizer, and I presented it. I was also interviewed at length over the phone by Pringle for her Science news article. I am not, as Smith implies, stuck in some theoretical camp unable to accept “reasonable” explanations of Maya site abandonments and the dramatic changes that occurred in the Maya lowlands from about AD 750 to 1050. Dr. Iannone and I, as well as many others, are in agreement with Smith that polar oppositions don’t get us very far. That was the point of the symposium and that’s probably why Pringle’s article takes that position!

I’m not uncomfortable with the idea that Maya sites collapsed (I’ve worked at several that did, at least in terms of the monumental cores), but I am uncomfortable with easy simplifications (if there was a Maya collapse, please explain the site of Lamanai). In areas where sites were abandoned, the processes involved seem to be more complex the more we look at them. 15 years ago it seemed to be overpopulation and environmental degradation (e.g., at Copan), then it seemed to be warfare (.e.g, the Petexbatun region), now drought seems implicated in some areas (but by no means all, even where sites were abandoned). I don’t think its revisionist at all to ask people to consider this complexity and the abandoned outdated and simplistic notions of collapse that many hold.

Michael E. Smith said...

I fail to see where Aimers was quoted out of context. I did not quote him in the original entry, and in a comment I cited his article as saying that the Maya "did not collapse". His listing of the whole passage seems to me to justify my use of the short quotation. I certainly have no desire to cite or quote anyone out of context, but his meaning seems pretty clear to me ("did not collapse"), and I can't understand how this usage is a distortion of his meaning. Perhaps I am missing something here, I find this confusing.

I did not say anything about Aimers, or anyone else, being "stuck in some theoretical camp", and I did not mean to imply this either - such an inference would require a better knowledge of the historiography of the collapse debate than I possess.

This is obviously a "hot-button" issue in Maya studies. My opinion is that the concept of collapse may not be useful analytically. I am not aware of enough comparative research or conceptual work to develop the concepts and models needed to adequately model what happened in the Terminal Classic period in the Maya lowlands. Perhaps we should abandon the term "collapse" and find better models for lower-level processes in the realms of demography, farming, political dynamics, economic processes, etc.

Jim Aimers said...

Its odd... we seem to agree so I'm not sure what exactly we are arguing about here. The last paragraph of your last comment is virtually identical to my own position as expressed in the article and elsewhere in my work (and that of others).

It is indeed a hot button issue, and one about which absolutely everyone seems to have an opinion. That is why the References Cited in my article had to be cut BACK to 400 entries.