Thursday, March 8, 2012

Science and the Human Sciences: Prehispanic Maya Settlement and History

(This is a guest post by Gary Feinman)

Published in the journal Science, Medina-Elizalde and Rohling’s (2012) quantitative analysis of Terminal Classic period Maya (AD 800-1000) climatic shifts is a welcome refinement of the extent of a late 1st millennium episode of climatic change. Yet the authors' speculations regarding the fall of inland Maya settlements (the so-called Maya Collapse) is fraught with failures in logic and limitations in hypothesis evaluation that too often are characteristic of natural scientists delving naively into the causes and complexities of societal change. Even more problematic is the repeated license given by one of the world’s premier science journals to this kind of disciplinary overreach at a time when extremely few articles by archaeologists are offered this broadly visible platform. 

Medina-Elizalde and Rohling begin with the premise that drought precipitated the collapse of these inland centers. But, when finding precipitation declines of only 40%, they do not reconsider their presumed causality, instead inferring that the Maya polities were so fragile that even the estimated rainfall declines were enough to generate collapse. These findings then underpin their policy warning that even minor climatic shifts may fatally endanger contemporary states facing present climatic shifts.

Left entirely unconsidered in their historical reconstructions of causality are the numerous other factors, from warfare to shifts in pan-Mesoamerican exchange patterns, that have been advanced as keys to the fall of the Classic Maya states. The consideration, evaluation, and elimination of alternative hypotheses are central to truly scientific inquiry, and their absence from this work only reinforces the preconceived bias that the prehispanic Maya were not sufficiently ingenious to respond to natural environmental fluctuations. It is crucial to recognize that Maya polities in northern Yucatán and coastal Belize, some of the driest parts of the Maya domain, thrived during and after the decline of inland settlements and populations.

Also problematic are the advanced policy implications. While I share concerns about anthropogenic environmental and climatic changes that hazard the modern world, the authors’ perspectives view humans as incapable of forging effective responses to external perturbations. And yet, those of us dedicated to understanding our species’ history recognize that we have repeatedly established cooperative networks at various scales to address and forestall similar challenges. If modern societies fail and fall, the responsibilities will be borne in part by our cooperative, competitive, and leadership networks and arrangements rather than merely the consequence of declines in rainfall.

At its current best, contemporary archaeological practice strives for serious evaluations of the causes and consequences of social actions and change. Repeatedly we have seen that through history rarely have climatic perturbations alone been both the proximate and ultimate causes of significant shifts in human settlement and catastrophic upheavals in political organization (e.g., Middleton 2012). Given the problems faced by our species today, the publishers of Science ought to lend their weighty profile and give greater voice to those of us endeavoring to understand the repertoire of behaviors that humans and their social groupings have derived and innovated to address the suite of challenges that they have faced. Many of those historical episodes may bear key insights for addressing the hazards and challenges that we as a species and a society face today.

References Cited

Medina-Elizalde, Martín, and Eelco J. Rohling
2012 Collapse of Classic Maya Civilization related to modest reduction in precipitation. Science 335:956-959.

Middleton, Guy D.
2012 Nothing lasts forever: environmental discourses on the collapse of past societies. Journal of Archaeological Research 20. In press (available online).

Gary M. Feinman
The Field Museum


Johan Normark said...

Indeed. In my view this study actually undermines the various "drought-models" for the collapse.

M. Gorissen said...

If Middleton's paper is already online, may we have link, please?

Michael E. Smith said...

Sorry, here is the link. I sometimes hesitate on links like this, since my own access goes through the university library, and the links I use have the library as part of the URL (and thus will not work for others). But here is the direct link to the online first papers, including Middleton:

David said...

Great points, Gary. The authors note that during the Classic period the region experienced similar scale drought cycles but didn't undergo radical societal transformation. The question then becomes, what was different this time (during the Terminal Classic)? It's troubling the study wasn't framed this way.

Gary Feinman said...


That is a great additional point. Many thanks.
The climatic data bear certain similarities to the correlations in the ancestral Puebloan region, where an episode of dispersal, depopulation, and site abandonment also was timed with climatic shifts. These climatic shifts often are pegged as causal, yet similar climatic perturbations occurred earlier with different, lesser consequences. The documentation of correlations is never sufficient and at most only an initial step toward understanding societal changes. For us, the more critical analytical step is to understand how different kinds of human social/cooperative arrangements respond in distinct ways to different kinds of challenges and why/how those responses vary in their effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. Should not Feinman's review go through a peer review? This seems like a clear problematic area in blogging in academia. I happen to agree, but this is a problematic post in essence, especially when it involves very well established and senior scholars criticizing scholars of less status and position. Should anyone stop and consider this issue?

Unknown said...

Hold on one moment. Scholarship, scholarly debates and dialogue now take place in many diverse venues. Some are peer-reviewed and others not. The piece that I wrote about is now published in Science, no less. Anyone is free to comment on writing that is openly published.

Mike Smith is an established scholar and he makes many useful comments and critiques on his blog. There is no peer-review. Is that a problem? Should such scholarly opinions be limited to just people who have their own blogs?

In Anthropology and many other social science disciplines, established scholars are free to offer blog posts without peer review. How about Paul Krugman, a Noble Prize awardee, you cannot get more established than that?

Regarding my comment, I asked Mike if he would post my essay since it touched on several issues that he had raised before in his blog. Mike read it and served to review it.

I see no problem in established scholars or novices or anyone in-between making scholarly blog comments as long as they (a) avoid personal attacks and stick to the issues, and (b) sign their name to their comments. Following such practices opens the door to free, open, and productive dialogues in archaeology, anthropology, and other fields. The openness of blogs actually makes debate less hierarchical and potentially more open as anyone can participate.

In actuality, I find your comment to be somewhat problematic since you are casting dispersion while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

Michael E. Smith said...

On the issue of anonymity, I have 2 comments. First, a clarification: anyone who declines to give a name under their comments comes out as named "Anonymous." Personally, I use the site Gravatar, which has my profile and photo, linked to my email. Any time I post a comment on a blog, it finds my photo and name and sticks them in (except for Blogger, which has my identity because I have blogs here).

Second, the frequent use of "anonymous" for comments often bothers me. If you compare archaeology blogs to those in other fields (e.g., cultural anthro), commenters use "anonymous" far more in archaeology. I think this is related to a general lower level of use and sophistication of social media and internet resources by archaeologists compared to others. Why don't we have, say, a good Mesoamerican blog for discussions about Maya droughts? Why is the only listserv for Mesoamerica (Aztlan) one that consists primarily of amateurs and not professionals?

Colleagues in other disciplines (e.g., sociology) have professional listservs where they discuss -- in a scholarly fashion -- current issues in the news. I was lured into Twitter by a blog post by a psychologist who claimed she got tips to useful professional papers via twitter. Well, that certainly is not the case for archaeology. I found it worthless to send tweets, and although I find some interesting things, they are mostly fluff and not substantial professional information.

Sorry to go on like this. I wish people would use their names. Take a look at the comments on Savage Minds sometime - real intellectual discussions, by specific identifiable individuals.

Patrice Bonnafoux said...

Interesting comments. Regarding the social impact of climate change, I would recommend the work of Arlene Rosen (

2012 "Climate change, adaptive cycles, and the persistence of foraging economies during the late Pleistocene/Holocene transition in the Levant" []

2007 Civilizing Climate: Social Responses to Climate Change in the Ancient Near East. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Jerry Ek said...


I also find resilience theory as a very useful conceptual framework to understand human/environmental dynamics. It definitely provides a set of concepts to go beyond the pretty blatant environmental determinism that is passed off as environmental archaeology these days.

I'm really surprised that more specialists in the earth and natural sciences that are doing archaeological or at least archaeologically relevant research don't use that approach more often.

I hadn't seen Rosen's work before, though. Thanks for posting that.