Friday, May 20, 2011

Angkor and the Ancient Maya: Complementary Civilizations?

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, courtesy of Wikipedia.
I am currently finishing my dissertation on the famous Collapse of the Classic Maya civilization. However, while my dissertation centers on the ancient Maya, I am also examining many other ancient civilizations, many of which also suffered collapses of their own. One of these is the civilization of Angkor, most famous for producing the wonder that is Angkor Wat, built during the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled A.D. 1113 - 1150). However, the civilization which produced this, one of the largest constructions of the ancient world, began long before Suryavarman II and continued, ultimately producing the modern Khmer culture of Cambodia.

The Angkor, or "Classic", period of this civilization begins traditionally with the assumption of the title of chakravartin, or "universal ruler", by Jayavarman II in A.D. 802, and continues to A.D. 1431, when, according to the Royal Chronicles, a 19th century official history of dubious reliability, the Thai sacked the capital city of Angkor. Unfortunately, the tropical climate of Cambodia has meant that all written documents that date back more than 200 years, inscribed traditionally in palm-leaf books, have rotted away, leaving historians having to reconstruct Angkor's history from laconic monumental dedicatory texts on stone temples, which obviously give a very distorted view of the past and were never meant as the basis of histories, either. These dedicatory texts do provide the basic outline of a history of the Angkor period, however, and what is interesting is that despite later kings reckoning the foundation of their kingdom from Jayavarman II's ritual in 802, there are no contemporary inscriptions until 880, when the Preah Ko temple was dedicated. The last inscriptions at Angkor that can be dated are from the reign of Jayavarman IX (also known as Jayavarman Paramesvara), who took the throne in 1327.

Thus the Ankgor period begins in 802, and is in full gear by 880, continuing to ca. 1330/1340 and finally fading out in the 15th century. Interestingly, this corresponds very well to a 'Dark Age' in ancient Maya civilization. The Classic Maya civilization is pretty much defined by the use of the Long Count calendar, and the earliest Long Count date in the Maya Lowlands dates to A.D. 292 and the last to A.D. 909. However, the Classic Maya world went into a major crisis shortly after A.D. 800 and the next century saw sites fading out, with the final population in most cities gone entirely by A.D. 1000. The Early Postclassic period is attested at hardly any sites and not until the rise of Mayapan and other sites, such as Topoxte, in the 13th and 14th centuries do we see much evidence of Maya civilization. Thus, at just the time that the Classic Maya went into the crisis that would ultimately consume their civilization, we see the rise of the Angkor period in Cambodia.

This inverse correlation exists even for the earlier period of both cultural areas as well. The height of the Classic Maya civilization is the Late Classic period, especially the 8th century. This period in Cambodia, however, is one in which few temples were constructed and inscriptions are few and far between. There are a number of pre-Angkor inscriptions found throughout the rest of Cambodia. The earliest are undated but appear to date to the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. Dated pre-Angkorian inscriptions are relatively abundant from 611 to the beginning of the 8th century, but are almost non-existant for the subsequent century and a half. The period of most intense carving of pre-Angkorian inscriptions in Cambodia, then, is during the 7th century, which corresponds quite closely to the famous hiatus period of the southern Maya lowlands.

Now, I would not take these correlations too strongly - the hiatus at Tikal ends in the 690s while at sites such as Palenque and Copan it ends even earlier, by the 650s. However, it is interesting to see that the general ups and downs of Maya and Angkor civilizations do seem to be the inverse of each other. Michael Coe has written about comparisons between the Maya and Angkor civilizations and while he thinks there may have been direct contacts between the two regions, I do not see any evidence for such contacts. Therefore, I cannot see this inverse correlation between the two regions' cultural histories as being directly related. However, I do wonder whether general trends in climate change around the globe might not be at least partially responsible. Last year Brendan Buckley and his colleagues published their study on the ancient climate of Cambodia, and have proposed that Angkor was hit by two severe droughts, one in the mid-14th century and a second in the early 15th century, which were followed immediately by extra-severe monsoons. These extreme climate disasters overtaxed the civilization of Angkor and led to the abandonment of the city's famous irrigation network of canals, and ultimately to the move of the capital city to the southeast. You can read a popular article of their research here, and you can see their more academic publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here. In my dissertation I argue that the Classic Maya Collapse was largely due to similar changes in climate and that while there is evidence for accompanying warfare and social changes, these were more results than causal factors of the Collapse.


  1. Hi Stan,

    Actually, I would favor a drought-related cause for the collapse of the Khmer empire more than for the Maya lowlands, simply because we have a large centralized empire on one hand and far more decentralized smaller states on the other hand (even if we include the so-called superpowers). Considering the size of Angkor (1 million+ people) it would have been much more vulnerable to a severe drought (I assume they also had to feed elephants, horses (?), and water buffalos). One should therefore also consider the side effects of famine, such as diseases that spread from interactions with domestic animal populations (rare to non-existent in Mesoamerica before the conquest).

    As you may know I am also interested of what is found in the “black box” of the mega-drought hypothesis, that is, which are the assumptions that now are taken for granted and hidden in every argument about the drought related causes? For the Maya area it is, according to me, the analogies with modern and particularly the Colonial period droughts from the Northern Lowlands. Analogies with these later periods are frequent in Gill’s work and they are more or less assumed in the studies from palaeoclimatologists. In my upcoming book on this issue I also briefly mention Mike Davis’s (2001) book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño and the Making of the Third World as an example from a later Colonial period when the effects of droughts became exaggerated because of socio-political circumstances. I do not know if the study you refer to also hides later and better documented droughts from the European/French Colonial period, used as analogies for the Angkor related droughts. They may not appear in that study itself, they may be found in earlier studies on these issues. That is what would characterize a black box. Such analogies have been brought up in earlier studies in the Maya lowlands but after the argument have been established that drought causes collapse, these analogies fade away and becomes ghosts of every argument.

    That said, of course droughts affected society on all scales. The question is just to what degree. Here I believe the case for the mega-drought for the Maya lowlands is less convincing when I begin to see how the argument(s) have been constructed. As Tainter (2008) says, there are way too many qualifiers in Gill’s argument.

  2. Johan, thanks for the comment. As blogger has been having issues this last week, an earlier comment by Marc Zender somehow got lost in the ether and so yours now stands as the first one on this blog. So thanks!

    As for drought as an explanatory device to explain the Classic Maya vs. Angkor collapses, I would actually find drought as possibly being even more applicable to the Maya case than to the Angkor one. While the Angkor state was much more centralized than the Classic Maya sociopolitical world, plus much larger, there are a few other major differences. Angkor, as part of Eurasia, had different crops and domesticated animals, and most crucially, much better means of transportation. Much has been written about Maya road systems and maritime trade but these absolutely pale in comparison to what was around in the civilizations of the Old World, including Angkor. If a drought hit Angkor, its rulers could have imported rice from elsewhere far more easily than Classic Maya kings could have. Furthermore, the people of Angkor had more types of grain and far more types of domesticated animals to rely upon. If some catastrophe affected one or more of these sources, the people of Angkor could have utilized other ones. For the Classic Maya of the late 8th century there were few alternatives available if the maize crop failed to produce.

    I know you are suspicious of analogies with the Colonial period in Yucatan, but I am still skeptical that the changes wrought by the Spanish after the Conquest were that extreme. The Spanish did try to congregate the native population in towns, but living in towns seems to have been fairly typical of pre-Columbian Maya populations as well. I agree that in the face of drought the pre-Columbian Maya would likely have moved out into the forest, and would have accessed forest products in extreme conditions. However, at the end of the 8th and into the 9th century in some places, there was next to no forest left. Population levels were simply too high to permit this tradition, and there was too little forest to sustain such activity for any but a tiny minority. Given how fragmented the Late Classic Maya political situation was, and how primitive its transportation system was, any deviation in climatic norms could have been devastating. And with the Maya inability to store their maize more than a year or two in their tropical environment, only a few bad harvests in a row would have had catastrophic effects. And catastrophe is what happened to the Maya in the Terminal Classic so this all fits quite nicely, at least in my books.

    I think the strongest part of the analogies with Colonial droughts is simply their frequency and how quickly they could have devastating effects. While the Colonial system undoubtedly would have affected this, I am still skeptical that it had such a large effect as to disqualify the use of such analogies. The early Spanish encomiendas don't seem to have seen a whole lot of direct control on the part of the Spanish themselves, and very quickly the Spanish gave up on trying to produce their own crops and vegetables as they just weren't suited for the soils of Yucatan. By contenting themselves with Maya products, produced by the Maya more or less in traditional fashion, I see good reason to see a lot of worth in these analogies. But perhaps you have some more specific criticisms, and if so, I would certainly be interested to hear them. All the best from Idaho,


  3. Hi again,

    The reason I argued that Angkor would have been more vulnerable is that its better transportation system need not have helped it. The same arguments have been delivered for Colonial Mexico, that its administration could have collected subsistence from elsewhere through shipments. That did not occur until the Late Colonial period and even then the help was primarily sent to Merida and Campeche, not to the countryside. I agree that a greater diversity of crops and animals would have been more beneficial for Angkor, but more animals also means more creatures to feed in normal non-drought years which means less stored food during droughts (apart from the meat of course).

    One major problem with the argument that there was no forest to escape to during drought is that there was not one drought according to Gill’s argument, but at least four (760, 810, 860 and 910). Each of them is supposed to have affected part of the lowland, not the whole area. Hence, once a region had been devastated it would have been able to recover in the following decades by immigrants from neighboring un-affected areas. Rulers of neighboring polities would in that case have been able to use these regions for subsistence production. There would have been plenty of space and forest for two generations (50 years) until the next drought. One issue that I also attempt to address in my research is that of the demographic calculations. How much mobility was there locally, within a polity? Could dispersed households belong to the same extended families? Did farmers follow the political borders of their overlords? If there were much more mobility among the Maya the demographic numbers would also decrease to a significant degree.

    I am, of course, confident that I am on the right track with my view of the Colonial period. Yesterday I noted that there is supposedly an increased frequency of droughts from 1780 to 1900. Incidentally, this happened around the time of the Bourbon reforms and the hacienda expansion. I argue that the greater stresses to the Maya communities from the Colonial administration made them more vulnerable to droughts. Hence, the droughts may appear to be more frequent when it is only the effects of the droughts that become more apparent to officials. The threshold for what counts as a drought changes due to these non-climatological changes.

    Anyway, what I look for is better archaeological evidence that drought caused collapse, not analogies from later periods. I have not seen this yet and that makes me suspicious. Circumstantial evidence and the need for a long series of qualifiers make me a bit skeptical to single causes. I think Demarest is right to point out that the drought in 760 did not lead to the downfall of Dos Pilas. The drought came at the end, not at the beginning of that process.

  4. Johan,

    agreed that just because a culture had the ability for (relatively) efficient bulk transport doesn't mean they actually used this effectively. However, for the ancient Maya even that possibility didn't exist, meaning, as far as I can see it, that they would have been potentially worse off in a drought than either Colonial Yucatan or ancient Angkor. While animals do need to be fed in a drought, they of course can serve as sources of food in such extreme conditions. The Maya had their dogs and perhaps some turkeys. Other than that they had to hunt or gather plant foods in the forest, and I don't think there was very much of this at all at the end of the Late Classic period.

    As for Gill's four droughts that are both geographically and temporally distinct, this is the part where I part ways with him. My dissertation is on the chronology of the Collapse and in it I show that while there are separate phases to the Collapse, these are not (contra Gill) geographically isolated events for the most part. The 760 drought can probably be correlated with the only epigraphic reference to a historical drought, which is found in a text from Comalcalco which says that 763 was a drought year. There is an interestingly high number of changes of rulership either in this year or near this point (often we don't have the precise data to specify the year), but I don't see any kingdoms having collapsed or were abandoned because of this drought. The 761 date for the beginning of the Collapse, popularized by Demarest, is simply inaccurate. While Dos Pilas did suffer defeat at the hands of tiny Tamarindito, the royal family simply relocated to Aguateca and within ten years had stamped out this rebellion, snuffing out Tamarindito and the local dynasty of Seibal in the process. The idea that there was a "landscape of fear" in the late 8th century is the result of a bad correlation of archaeological remains with epigraphic data. The walls around Dos Pilas were clearly built by the people whose housemounds were found inside the central plaza of the site, and these have early Terminal Classic pottery inside, indicating that Dos Pilas wasn't subjected to its final siege until at least 800, right around the same time the same thing happened to Aguateca. Furthermore, it makes no sense for the king of Dos Pilas to tear down his quite defensible palace to build himself an indefensible house mound not twenty feet away, with no differentiation between his house and those of his subjects. The builders of this siege wall weren't royalty and the king was gone from Dos Pilas by then. This was because he was in Aguateca already, and this means the final siege was not in 761 but decades later. So the problem is that Demarest has correlated the archaeological evidence for warfare with an epigraphic mention of warfare, but the two are not evidence relating to the same event. So I think it is wrong to say that the drought came at the end of the collapse of Dos Pilas. This fails to account for the regional picture and is a case of how a microscopic focus on one site can produce a very distorted view. At least that is my opinion.

  5. So the big problem is chronology, which is so basic to archaeology but often so difficult to establish. The later droughts of the 9th century are also not restricted to certain geographical areas. In my dissertation I demonstrate how the ca. 810 drought is the most destructive, and one can find evidence of sites either abandoned, permanently or only temporarily, or suffering major crises. Even sites that survived this period show signs of extreme stress, including hiatuses in monument carving. This evidence can be found from Tonina in the west to Lamanai in the east to Copan in the south and Coba and Ek Balam in the north, and practically every site inbetween. What complicates the issue is that we have different types of evidence for this chronology, from epigraphic dates that are specific to the day (but do not date the final occupation), to radiocarbon dates that have up to 50 or 100 years of wiggle room on either side, to ceramic style dates, that are also far fuzzier than many acknowledge. Too many of our colleagues compare all of these dates for final occupation as if they are all of equal value, or have equal error margins. This is obviously not the case and I think is the reason why so many people see separate collapses at each of these sites. I don't.

    I see definite patterns and these suggest an initial catastrophe ca. 810 with a second, less evidence crisis in the late 9th century, with the final death blow falling ca. 910. These are not regionally restricted, however, and so I do not believe that the Maya kings could have transported maize from one area unaffected by drought to one that was. Now, no doubt the Maya did go through lesser droughts all the time throughout the Classic period, and while they could have transported maize given the patterns of epigraphically documented warfare and lack of trade in elite ceramics between warring polities, I suspect such trade was minimal at best. Besides, except for river transport, the Maya were stuck having to transport bulk goods on the back of human porters and the ancient Maya had to eat maize. A porter could not travel more than a few hundred kilometers without having eaten his entire load, making the whole activity pointless.

  6. As for the mobility of the ancient Maya peasantry it is interesting how little mobility there appears to have been for the elite, who would have had a much easier time of moving around. Apart from the one (dubious) account of a Palenque princess marrying a king of Copan I don't know of any royal marriages that can be documented in which the wife moved more than 100 km. While Postclassic Maya traders maintained contacts over many hundreds of kilometers I am skeptical that this was an analogous situation to the Classic Maya.

    You mention that you are looking for actual archaeological evidence that drought caused collapse, rather than looking at later, dubious analogies. I wonder what kind of evidence you are looking for in this regard. You mention that you are skeptical of single causes. For me I see drought, or actually climate change (as I see excessive rain, or rain out of season, as equally catastrophic events given the situation the Late Classic Maya found themselves in), as the driving force behind the Collapse, triggering a whole series of symptoms such as warfare, changing trade routes etc. While the Maya survived such changes in their climate before, the situation at the end of the 8th century was very different. Never before had Maya population been so large and while population densities may have been equaled at the end of the Late Preclassic in the Mirador Basin, there we see a collapse that was followed apparently by a diaspora out of the Basin and into areas that had much smaller population and plenty of untapped, virgin land. At the end of the 8th century I see little evidence of such "backup systems" anymore. Without the resources of forest to rely upon in years of bad harvest, nor the ability to move to other areas since these were already occupied by people in the same dire straits, the result was either death or fighting it out in a real "landscape of fear". However, this did not come in 761, even in the Petexbatun region, but rather only ca. 810.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts this morning. Cheers from Idaho,


  7. Stan,

    The evidence I talk about is a broad set of detectable data of drought-related causes from one site, and not different data sets collected from several sites (malnutrition detected at one site, drought from one lake, warfare at another site, analogies from the Books of Chilam Balam from the Colonial Northern Lowlands, etc.) that all fall under an umbrella hypothesis. The data should stand on its own, independent of analogies. I still maintain the claim that the whole hypothesis primarily rests on analogical reasoning and I hope that archaeologists understand that what constitutes a drought is not just a fixed number (such as a certain amount of rain in a Colonial or modern year). It depends on population size, tribute, tax and labor demands (to be paid or supported by crops, etc.), the mobility of the population (are you likely to stay and await the approaching drought or do you/can you move to a better location), etc. What was considered a drought may have differed between polities.

    I do not think that the Maya went into the forest for hunting or searching for roots during Prehispanic droughts. I believe that the population was lower than calculated because extended families may have had other dwellings as well (not just field huts) in the hinterland, at least during droughts. The pattern we have in the Cochuah region is dispersion, particularly to cave sites, during the Terminal Classic (and to a lesser extent in the Late Formative). Hence, some people moved away from aguadas and cenotes during droughts. It is, of course, difficult to know if these new small settlements rose as a consequence of overpopulation, struggle over scarce resources, or if it simply was a community based strategy that was harder to maintain in the Colonial period (particularly since the friars disliked the use of caves). The hunting for roots in the despoblado was surely an artifact of the Colonial system, but I suspect it partially was an expression of a much older “commoner” strategy. The mobility I am discussing is not in the order of the Itza and Kowoj migration from the north to Peten, but rather a local dispersion (5-10 km). The elite may not have needed to move around that much for their “business”, but that may have been necessary for the farmers and that may have caused no problem for their overlords. The Spaniards saw this movement as a problem (and yes I know that the early Colonial Northern Lowlands had far fewer inhabitants and therefore greater areas to live on than in Late Classic Peten). Medel’s ordinances clearly show how the Spaniards saw movement as a threat to the Spanish State and Church.

  8. In short, I believe that there was a heterarchical structure of the commoners that circumscribed the hierarchical structure of the elite to some extent. I believe that the Colonial pattern of patronymics is an artifact of such a structure. Farriss mentions that a person arriving in a distant village, not knowing anyone there, could expect help from a person with the same patronymic. That is, having “pockets” of “relatives” here and there may be a good strategy to survive a drought if it struck one region. I remember an anthropologist working in Bangladesh who has reported on a similar dispersion of families, people living in non-contiguous spaces (yes, a comparative analogy). The elite may have been fairly immobile because their politics demanded a more contiguous space.

    Well, that is at least one of my ideas. Hard to find hard evidence for it though…

    When is your dissertation thesis done? I think I must read it before I finish my book and articles in preparation.



  9. Johan, you bring up the subject of analogies, and while you criticize their use you also acknowledge that it is almost unavoidable for archaeologists to make use of them.
    Personally, I agree with Hodder that some analogies are better than others and that what we need to do is specify in what ways our analogies are supported by the actual archaeological evidence, and in what ways our analogies are unsupported by evidence, or in some cases, contradicted by the evidence.

    In the case of drought and the Classic Maya Collapse you reject a correlation and invoke your own analogy, a direct-historical one, between the Terminal Classic Maya and the Conquest period Maya in order to argue that the Maya during the Collapse period could have been far more mobile, and may have had the ability to move outside of their home territories, where they would have been accepted by anyone who shared their same family name. So I hope you see that while you criticize drought proponents such as myself for the use of analogies, you yourself are using direct historical analogies in order to propose an alternative hypothesis.

    Personally, I am very skeptical that the same social dynamic, a tradition allowing foreigners to find support from anyone else with the same family name, was in use during the Classic period. There were major differences between the Classic and Conquest period Maya. Not only do we have little evidence for occupational continuity at most sites between these periods, titles in use during the Classic period survived to be recorded in Spanish accounts. In fact, this tradition would quickly cause massive problems if it was ever more than a rare occurrence, especially for agricultural peoples with poor transportation and restricted ability to store foodstuffs for any amount of time.

    Now, you have also stated that perhaps while the Classic Maya elite appear to have been fairly immobile, the commoners may have been able to move around much more. I am also skeptical of this. We know that the kings of Dos Pilas maintained a second royal palace at Aguateca, and the capital of the Snake Kingdom moved around a number of times. So the elite were moving about, albeit within their own realms, so I don't think tradition held them too rigidly to one location. Ceramics do not suggest a highly mobile commoner population as regional traditions exist for even basic commoner wares. This is one of the reasons why I do not accept the argument many have proposed for explaining the sudden rise of population in the Puuc region and the apparent simultaneous depopulation of the southern lowlands, namely migration. The cultural traditions of the Puuc region do not demonstrate any influx of such people with different traditions, and the rise of Puuc populations I think has to be found within the northern lowlands itself.

    Finally, I don't think one can find much historical precedent for a highly mobile commoner population and a rigidly immobile elite. One could perhaps argue that the medieval movement of Arab sailors to India and Indonesia and Chinese sailors to Southeast Asia provide counter-examples, but these are cases of movement by sea, which I do not believe is a factor in the case we are discussing, and in the case of Chinese sailors, these were actually commissioned by the Chinese emperor in large part. So, all in all, I see little reason to believe that Maya commoners were moving around a lot in the Classic period. I believe there were major transformations of Maya culture between the Classic and Conquest periods and that direct historical analogies are often very problematic for that reason. OK, I'll send this off and hope it doesn't get cut off for being too long.

  10. OK, that one worked.

    So, while I am suspicious of direct historical analogies myself, I don't mind Gill's Colonial period analogies because I believe these demonstrate that drought would have had devastating effects on the ancient Maya, especially when their population levels were as high as they were at the end of the Late Classic period. Yes, the Spanish-imposed Colonial system did lead to a number of changes in Maya culture, but I do know if these can be blamed except in minor ways for exacerbating the effects of drought. The Colonial evidence Gill and Farriss have brought up show that droughts did occur during the Colonial period. Did the Colonial system make what otherwise would have been minor inconveniences into major catastrophes in the form of famine? To an extent, I'm sure, but the whole colonial society was dependent upon the agricultural produce of the Maya and population levels were much, much lower than even in the Late Postclassic. So the Colonial system could not have survived if they had completely mismanaged society and undermined the agriculture that they themselves depended on, and while the Colonial Spaniards didn't make much use of their ability to import food the Classic Maya didn't even have that opportunity. Classic Maya kings don't seem to have had much direct control of the commoners, so I don't believe that either the commoners or the elite had many options in the face of crisis.

    Anyway, enough from me for now. I hope all is well with you and your family off in Sweden and all the best from Idaho,


  11. Stan,

    I recognize the problem with analogies and when I do use them it is in order to counter an argument rather than to support it. My use of the patronymics analogy is not intended to support my argument but rather to question models that view ancient politics from purely contiguous spaces. The archaeological data we have from the Cochuah region suggests dispersion during droughts (not nucleation to cenotes as one perhaps would expect when water supplies are running low). One could of course see the Terminal Classic expansion into several “new” sites (most of them had been occupied in the Late Formative as well, but not in-between) as a population growth but I find that hard to believe considering the drier conditions. Some of my colleagues speculate that immigration from the Puuc area occurred at this time as well (like you I do not believe in these long-distance migrations). Hence, I base my argument on dispersion of settlement occurring at the time of the droughts (we have a similar, but less clear, dispersion during the Late Formative). The patronymics analogy is not intended to “prove” that it worked in Terminal Classic as well, just to question the black-boxed argument that ancestral place always is confined within the same territory.

    Obviously, people could not move around as far as possible (as I mentioned before I do not believe in migration like that of the Itza and Kowoj in the Classic period). Ceramic spheres are indeed limited in extent but I believe that a ceramic sphere is larger than a polity and that people (through markets, etc.) also moved around and had affiliations extending beyond the ruler’s domain. So when I talk about the rulers being more stable, I am referring to them being stable within their domain (another example would be that mobility suggested by Joseph Ball for the rulers of Buenavista del Cayo). Commoners may not have needed or have been obliged to stay within the domain of the ruler (these were after all not national states or ancient Greek city states). Was the commoner identity located in a physical place (a cave, a house, etc.) or was it located in something that could move around (ancestor remains in a bundle, another object, etc.)? I believe archaeologists are too fixed with place (since these are what we study as archaeologists or from royal inscriptions of toponyms). Yes, people lived with the ancestors, but if the ancestors could be brought along what do we have then? We should study trajectories, not points.

  12. I do not claim that the commoners were “highly mobile”. I am talking about local dispersion during periods of severe droughts (sometimes several generations apart). That is hardly highly mobile, they were not nomads (however, there is an interesting analogy from nomadic people from Barth’s work that suggests that the rights to grazing land was periodic rather than territorial and I only bring it up here to show that there are other ways to understand the use of land than purely contiguous, it may also be temporal in some contexts, not that I would invoke Rice’s may-cycle model…). What I do claim is that there were strategies, within local communities and on several organizational levels, to disperse and spread risks in agriculture across a greater area during periods of severe stress. We have not encountered such dispersed pattern during the Colonial period in the Cochuah region. That is why caves are of interest to me. About 2/3 of the caves in the Cochuah region have Prehispanic/Terminal Classic settlement within a radius of 150 m. The same number for the Colonial period is less than 1/5 (and of these 4 caves 3 are cenotes). My conclusion is that the dry and wet caves were attractors for settlement (being close to rain gods, earth lords, etc.) during Prehispanic times. The Spaniards did not encourage the use of caves for their converting mission. They only used cenotes with water access. The only non-cenote located within a Colonial settlement is a cave covered by a Terminal Classic platform in the congregated settlement of Sacalaca that also happen to have a cenote.

    Finally, yes both Farriss and Gill mention droughts but their interpretations completely differ. Farriss clearly states that the Spanish presence exaggerated the problems with drought and Gill states that there is no problem projecting the colonial conditions into the distant past (it is quite remarkable how he quotes Farriss on pages that sometimes contradict what he is trying to say). How much archaeological data does Gill actually bring up to support his model apart from his generalization of whole regions from last-date inscriptions and a slightly more detailed coverage of Chichen Itza (kind of an anomalous site when he actually focuses on the southern lowlands)? Not much. His study is primarily based on palaeoclimatological data and Colonial period analogies!

  13. Johan, I see you making use of analogies in terms of demonstrating alternative hypotheses. In my books that still qualifies as using analogies. I think we both agree that analogies are inescapable but that many people use bad analogies. The key for me is detailing the evidence to show how relevant and appropriate a given analogy may or may not be. Gill certainly does use analogies with Colonial droughts to argue just how devastating droughts at the end of the Classic period might have been. Drought itself doesn't kill people, it is the resultant famine that does. Drought doesn't have to lead to famine, if the victims of drought have alternative food sources, either through importing food from outside the drought zone or through foodstores that can last until better harvests can be brought in. Drought was definitely a cause of terrible famines in the Colonial period and Gill says this was also the case in Precolumbian times. You question this, but for me the important thing to take account of is how few alternative strategies the Precolumbian Maya would have had to avoid famine in the face of drought. The Maya do not appear to have had a great ability to store food for more than a year or two, and their transportation system was actually very rudimentary. You suggest the Maya may have moved around but if you had a bad drought this would affect large swaths of land and the evidence (contra Gill) suggests that the droughts of the Terminal Classic were not restricted to small locales. So moving from Naranjo to Buenavista del Cayo would not have helped much.

    Could the Maya have up and moved halfway across the southern Lowlands to find a better situation? I don't think so. At the end of the Classic period we see the highest population levels the Maya ever reached, with house mounds bearing Late Classic pottery scattered all over the countryside. How high was this population density? You prefer to err on the side of lower population levels, and I generally would agree that a lot of the population estimates for ancient Maya cities are much too high. We both seem to believe that the Maya anciently had the ability to move out into less developed areas in the times of such stress. I, however, see there being very little empty forest land available for such and the fact that there is so little evidence for the Early Postclassic anywhere in the Maya world suggests that only a very few managed to successfully follow such a strategy. The population loss between the Late Classic and Early Postclassic, by any stretch of the imagination, must have been catastrophic. I can't believe that this is just a figment of the archaeological imagination and the result of archaeologically invisible people living in the forest. Over the hundreds of years that passed between the Late Classic and Late Postclassic those people should have become archaeologically visible.

  14. One of the biggest problems in discussing the Collapse, or any matter in archaeology for that matter, is chronology. We have hundreds of archaeologists working at thousands of archaeological sites and each of them with multiple buildings, artifacts, and phases of occupation and construction. In the Maya world we have dates that are sometimes based upon radiocarbon samples, others on epigraphic dates, with yet others on stylistic dating, variously of art as well as artifacts (especially ceramics). These dates have to be analyzed and compared and that's where I see so many people essentially comparing apples and oranges, with predictably unreliable (at best) results. Each of these different dating methods has its own margins of error, but these are often suppressed, while some dates are used uncritically to date things they are not directly connected to. This is the main focus of my dissertation and I think by properly acknowledging these issues a chronology of collapse can be established, and this suggests the whole Maya area suffered crises at essentially the same time. Given that there are no social causes that could have had such an effect, this is why I favor environmental causes, which can theoretically have such dramatic and drastic results.

    In terms of chronology, the above is why I am somewhat skeptical of your claim that in the Cochuah region the Maya during the Terminal Classic moved to cave sites (apparently many being dry) during droughts. Your dates for these settlements must be derived through ceramic style-dating and/or radiocarbon dates, but this results in a very gross chronology that would not allow you to be certain these settlements were not movements following earlier drought episodes, but after normal rainfall, or even increased rainfall, had occurred. Now, I fully admit I am not well versed in your data so I don't know the specifics of these caves, and how much water they may have or not, but these issues with chronology make me hesitant to say that the Maya in the Cochuah region moved to these caves in times of drought.

  15. I've had a few discussions with Gill and he tried really hard to argue that Chichen Itza was abandoned along with the rest of northern Yucatan ca. 900. This I cannot accept as the text from the High Priest's Grave has now been analyzed by a number of epigraphers, all of whom accept it as a date at the end of the 10th century. I still see a major Toltec presence at Chichen and this phase of the site's history seems to date to the late 10th and into the early 11th century. Chichen Itza is thus one of the few sites to straddle the Terminal Classic and into the Early Postclassic periods. (Chichen Itza is not a Late Classic site, however.) So I've become quite interested in Chichen as of late and my plans for major research once I'm done the dissertation (scheduled for August) involve looking again at Tula and Chichen.

    I should say that I have a lot of problems with Gill's specific data myself, but I do believe he is on the right track when he sees drought as potentially having been the major driving cause of the Classic Maya Collapse.

    As for archaeologists being too fixated on place, I both agree and disagree with you here. I have found a lot of resistance on the part of many of our colleagues to accept hypotheses in which there is long-distance contact between polities, most notably in arguments about Teotihuacanos at Tikal and Snake Kingdom warriors sacking Palenque. A lot of these criticisms, I have found, come from scholars who just can't believe these people could move around that much. On the other hand, I find that in terms of the debate on the Classic Maya Collapse, Roman Collapse and Bronze Age Collapse, many scholars overplay the idea of migration. The Maya from the Southern Lowlands moved north to the Puuc many argue, and we're both apparently in agreement that this is overstating the case. In Europe many downplay the Gothic migration into the Roman Empire in 376 by seeing this as just another migration, ignoring the fact that these people moved their whole families across, many being so desperate they tried swimming across when the Romans delayed in allowing them access. In terms of the Bronze Age Collapse many also see migration as common and don't recognize that the fact the Sea Peoples were migrating with their entire families suggests they were under truly dire straits.

    Migration in ancient times, over long distances, was not as easy as it is today, and I think a lot of these scholars, who have traveled around the world so easily, forget how difficult it would have been anciently. Without the modern economy moving meant entering a foreign territory with foreign people, people who under crisis conditions wouldn't want to allow in a lot of extra mouths to feed. Without food these newcomers would be at the mercy of the locals to survive the first year or so while they got established, if they let them in at all. There were no grocery stores where you could just buy your provisions. Furthermore, most of these people had never moved more than a few dozen km at most from the place of their birth, and the place where their ancestors were buried. Long-distance moves meant essentially abandoning your past, and the past was tradition which had allowed one's ancestors to survive. So I think in this respect a lot of archaeologists underestimate how difficult moving around was for past peoples, especially commoners.

  16. Stan,

    Yes, I use analogies to show that there are alternatives to other analogies, but I try as far as possible to ground my interpretation in the archaeological record. The problems I have with analogies are that they often are used to support an interpretation, but I use them to show that there are other analogies that can explain the same context but I choose not to follow them. It also depends on what level of analogy we talk about. In order to define something as an axe I must rely on my knowledge of axes from elsewhere (it is hard to argue against that use of analogy). We see plenty of cosmological analogies in cave studies but as Helmke shows in his dissertation there is little support for many of them. Gill’s use of analogies may seem less problematic than the cosmological ones but I disagree.

    I agree with you that long-distance migration is unlikely. What I argue with “movement” and “mobility” is local, within the extent of a ceramic sphere. I have never stated any movement from the Peten to the Puuc area (Gill does though). We do have “Sotuta” ceramics associated with late Terminal Classic open-fronted (“C-shaped”) structures at Nohcacab. Three C-shaped structures were found at the cave site of Xtojil (no excavations there yet so the ceramic content is unknown). I doubt that this data is evidence of migration or conquest from the north though.

    Maybe I should state clearer what I am trying to accomplish since there seems to be some misunderstanding. I am not arguing that the severe droughts had any effects at all. There seems to be changes in the settlement pattern in the Cochuah region during periods of droughts (and as you point out it is difficult to determine exactly when this occurred). People dispersed when drier conditions emerged. Why? Immigration from outside the region? No. I see local dispersion as the only reasonable cause and I doubt that overpopulation was the initial cause. There could, of course, have been other social reasons that we will never know but since it occurred at a time when droughts became more intense I believe that is the main reason (and it occurs at multiple sites).

  17. Now, given the nature of archaeological data it is difficult to establish specific details for why the dispersion occurred at each site. I am not particularly interested in the content of the caves, I am more interested in the settlements surrounding the caves. That is why I take a regional perspective. An interesting part with “my” region is that the Colonial border ran right through the region. This gives us an opportunity to see how Colonial period settlements and Terminal Classic settlements differed on a regional scale. Their distributions differ quite a lot. Whereas the Terminal Classic settlement can be found throughout the region, and it is particularly dense in the south, south of the cenote zone. The Colonial settlement does not stretch much beyond the cenote zone. The Spaniards congregated the settlement to cenotes but most of the Terminal Classic population did not. If I compare a Colonial/modern settlement they have many times more wells than a Terminal Classic settlement of comparable size. It seems to me that in the Colonial period they began to depend on greater water consumption (horses, cattle, etc.).

    Archaeologically there are differences between these periods. I also show how the Colonial officials emptied the villages of maize during droughts and brought it to Merida, Campeche and Valladolid. The rural areas suffered because of the Colonial system (and then Gill uses such examples to explain how droughts affected the Prehispanic Maya). There are several other examples like this where Gill ignores the effect of the Colonial regime (that would have been impossible in Prehispanic Maya contexts). They will appear in an article in preparation and in my book. This is why I want to see a study that does not depend on that Black Box. I think it will be impossible to go around it since there is not much evidence of drought in the archaeological record itself. The sudden disappearance of a large population is in itself not evidence of a drought (but I admit that it is far more likely than any ideological reasons).

    Basically, what I attempt to accomplish is not to find proof that the drought did not occur, that it did not collapse the communities, but that Gill’s (and many others) line of reasoning is filled with qualifiers and assumptions that need to be considered. Colonial analogies are really bad if one ignore all the changes that the Spaniards brought along intentionally or not (and they are several when you begin to look at it from the drought perspective). Since Gill’s hypothesis too such large extent relies on these analogies I find that problematic. However, I am not disagreeing with the fact of droughts affect societies. They may in fact have been the major cause but I find it hard to see the evidence.

  18. Another part of my research, which I have not brought up, is Gill’s theoretical apparatus. He makes (and you also seem to follow him here) a distinction between nature and culture (a classic modernist distinction but remember Latour’s words: “we have never been modern”). Hence, Gill talks about climate as a separate system from the “Maya civilization”. I fail to see that you can make such distinctions. I follow the assemblage perspective and study various concrete assemblages (institutions, sites, atmospheric circulation (rather than climate in a general sense, the Chicxulub fracture zone, wells, caves, human beings, etc.). Hence, I do not fall back on generalized stereotypes such as “Maya civilization” as if it was a homogeneous block. Hence I lower the scales of units and assemblages that may have “collapsed”. In my view, Gill’s view of “Maya civilization” is arborescent (a hierarchical way of thinking). Even though he uses a term like heterarchy, the very core of his research falls back on the hierarchical way of thinking the world. That is also the case of the cosmologists in Maya cave studies. Despite their differences (Gill’s thermodynamic model and Brady’s idealist model of the cave), they are similar in the way they order their data in hierarchies. What I try to accomplish is therefore to flatten them out onto the same ontological level (but different spatial scales). I am also open for more fluctuation within each assemblage than is possible if you take the “Maya civilization” perspective.

  19. Johan, sorry for the delay in response. I've been traveling around the Pacific Northwest the last week and visiting family and haven't had much time but to check my email the past few days.

    I couldn't agree with you more about not seeing "Maya civilization" as a homogeneous, monolithic and eternal whole. This is why I try hard to specify that what collapsed in the Terminal Classic period was Classic Maya civilization. Maya culture continued on, and in fact was never entirely encompassed by the "Classic" civilization. I try to identify what it is that I think comprises this Classic civilization and then trace it, from the emergence of each separate cultural trait, to how each of those traits was lost or abandoned, or was transformed beyond recognition into something truly different. I see a failure to do this behind a lot of those who insist on saying that Maya civilization never collapsed since modern Maya still exist. For too many there is no division between a culture/civilization and the physical beings that create, live and perpetuate those cultures.

    Now, I do believe that climate has always existed, long before people came around, but people do affect climate (more so now than ever before) and to a much, much greater extent, climate affects people. In fact, I think in terms of the Maya, one of the most distinctive features about ancient Maya civilization, its fascination with chronomancy is a direct result of having suffered numerous climate-related catastrophes that proved so devastating to their forebears. Humans adapt themselves to their environments but these and their climates are changeable and humans cannot always predict or adequately compensate for these changes, especially if they are tied in to an agricultural economy. In these cases collapse may be the inevitable outcome when these changes ruin a harvest or two, destroy the stores of the people, and at least temporarily greatly reduce the carrying capacity of the land.

  20. You said one thing that I definitely disagree with. You argue that the Colonial famines were only indirectly caused by drought since during a drought the Colonial Spanish authorities requisitioned the maize stores of the Maya, thus reducing them to starvation, and you go on to say that this would have been impossible under the ancient Maya kings. Firstly, I do not understand how the Spanish custom of reducing the rural population into towns has any effect on these incidents. Whether the Maya were in towns or rural hamlets has no effect on the Spanish being able to requisition grain during a drought, other than to make it a little easier to find the Maya stores of these goods.

    Second, I do not see how the ancient Maya kings couldn't have followed the same course of events in the event of a drought during Prehispanic times. Just because the settlement patterns are different and suggest the Maya kings weren't overseeing where the commoners placed their houses doesn't mean there weren't taxes or requisitions of goods during droughts. I would be highly surprised if Maya kings and their warrior hosts didn't requisition grain during exceptional moments. To not do so would have meant their own loss of provender and prestige and cross-cultural comparison around the world suggests that these armed and trained warriors would not have accepted their own demise so easily. For this reason I am suspicious whether settlement pattern differences between the Prehispanic and Colonial periods really invalidate the use of Colonial drought analogies.

    You say that you don't doubt that climate could affect ancient cultures such as the Maya, but that you don't see the evidence for the Classic Maya collapse. I wonder what kind of evidence you would expect to see if a terrible series of droughts and associated climate change had shocked Classic civilization to its core. Recognizing the inherently equivocal nature of archaeological materials, I see very little evidence that might contradict this hypothesis and a lot of (admittedly) circumstantial evidence that supports it. Which, of course, is why I am a proponent, of course.

    Cheers from British Columbia, Canada, where drought is pretty much never a problem,


  21. Due to an increasing amount of deadlines, etc. before the summer I try to make this reply short. Perhaps you have missed one of my blog posts that I wrote since my last comment here.

    Basically what I argue here is that a better communication system and greater administrative apparatus also can act to deplete an area quicker than to help it. The argument that Angkor and the Spanish Colonial system had better communications and would therefore have helped people during famine can therefore be turned around. That seems to have been the case for the Maya. Since you have argued yourself that the Maya lacked such communicative advantages that may actually have been beneficial for the Terminal Classic farmers. The Colonial cities also lacked the “urban farming” that we can see in the Prehispanic settlements. More people in Colonial cities were not farmers compared to Prehispanic ones, hence they depended more on imported crops. The Colonial Maya were also subdued to at least seven taxes and tributes, most of them of Colonial origin (Prehispanic Maya also had such obligations but it seems that the Colonial system added even more). Extended families were no longer allowed which meant that labor demands increased on the single household, etc. Diseases of European and Asian origin undermined them as well. The list is longer than this. Every single change alone may have had little effect, but all put together.

    I like the chronomancy part and I hope you develop that in your thesis. What you call civilization seems to resemble what I call the “kingship diagram” where the divine king is the “basin of attraction” that creates concrete assemblages from a shared set of “universal singularities”. May sound rather cryptic but it basically means that Tikal and Palenque share the same “topological” diagram but their concrete “metric” assemblages differ (site layout, architectural styles, etc) because of the way their historical trajectories have actualized various singularities of the diagram. Since the king is the basin of attraction it basically means that once he is gone the assemblages disappear although their parts continue (lineages, houses, chert tools, etc.). It is not too different from Gill’s thermodynamic model but I maintain more specific assemblages as units for the study.

  22. Johan,

    it is true that better transportation systems can allow the central authorities to fleece the countryside of its store of provisions during a famine, but it remains that the better transportation would also allow one to distribute food to stricken areas. Again, the Maya didn't even have that option so were inherently more vulnerable to famine, especially as the tropical environment they lived in doesn't allow for the storage of foodstuffs beyond a year or two at most. Just a couple of years of serious drought in the ancient Maya world would all but automatically cause famine. The evidence for "garden cities" amongst the ancient Maya has, in my view, been greatly exaggerated and in any event, this source of food was not contributing a large amount of nutrition to the ancient Maya and would also have been subject to drought conditions. The Maya simply had no real system of irrigation agriculture, nor any really reliable backup plan should their maize agriculture fail. I agree with your analysis of Colonial period taxation but I do not see this as undermining the drought model. Just because the Spanish policies could have and sometimes did exacerbate droughts, turning them into disastrous famines, doesn't mean that far worse droughts in the ancient period would not have also had disastrous consequences.

    One of the most important considerations of the Collapse is the population loss. This was extreme, and almost all of our colleagues ignore the fact that between the Terminal Classic and Late Postclassic periods there are centuries of the Early Postclassic that, despite years of searching, simply can't be found in almost every area. The "darkness" of this period, archaeologically and historically speaking, is such to make the Dark Ages of Europe look like a booming Golden Age. I see where you are going with your kingship diagram, but I emphasize that it isn't just the kingship system that changes between the Late Classic and Late Postclassic periods. All of society changes, and in both quantity and quality the various cultural traits demonstrate decline. The chronology of Collapse, what I am focusing on, indicates that this wasn't a gradual process, but rather a relatively sudden change, occurring over little more than a couple of generations, but with the actual moments of crisis being staggered and coming in spurts of what must have been true devastation to these ancient societies. The Late Postclassic isn't continuity so much as reconstitution.

  23. So this civilization came during the periods of Rome ?