Maya Collapse–Maize, Cacao, and Landscape

Even though I’m a Mesoamericanist, I’m not specifically a Mayanist. I start with this because these are my own musings on a couple of things in the news lately and how they might inter-relate. As they say, stay tuned when it comes to studying the Maya collapse–these new data are very interesting and need to be considered, but every answer leads to more questions (because that’s how science works!).

Ok, so what is going on? Well, the press for one recent study indicates that one reason for the Maya collapse was elites pushing maize agriculture instead of a more diversified agriculture-mixed-with-agroforestry-and-hunting-and-gathering. This would make sense in light of other new and exciting findings. As discussed most spectacularly in the National Geographic documentary Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake Kings (which isn’t really about “lost treasure,” but rather the new LiDAR data on a small section of the central Maya Lowlands), Maya archaeologists have a ton of work for them ground-truthing LiDAR data that indicates that there were a ton more Maya sites, and they were in many cases much bigger than we ever supposed. That means population estimates for the Maya will go up, doubling if not more. Along with this, the LiDAR data is indicating even-more-vast systems of landscape modification, such as the “bajo” system that was in some ways similar to the Aztec chinampas. To feed all those people, in other words, the Maya had to make the land more productive, and tying this back to the original point of all this, they likely had to get as many calories “out of the ground” as they could. Hence, they invested, so it seems, in maize agriculture. The problem was, even with the more extensive and impressive landscape modifications, maize agriculture isn’t as sustainable as the pre-existing pattern. As I usually phrase it to my classes, the Classic Maya weren’t stupid; if anything they were victims of their own success.

Throw in the fact that as discussed here, there was also as part of this drought process a disaster in the chocolate crop for Maya elites. Again, the headline is misleading–we’ve known that chocolate was special to Mesoamerican peoples as a drink and a luxury good since always, though the specific data for specific sites and cultures is perhaps new–but rather the fact that if something happened to the cacao crops of the 9th century CE/AD, this would have compounded problems. Cacao was a luxury/trade good that in Mesoamerica only grows in certain regions of the Maya area; it was relied on for consumption as a luxury good, a trade good that could be shipped to other parts of Mesoamerica, and yes, as a kind of “small change.” (The piece erroneously makes it seem like the Maya operated only on a non-complex version of barter; Mesoamerican peoples had multiple overlapping excahgne spheres involving cacao beans, reams of fine cotton cloth, and in later years bronze “axe-monies.”) So while there would have not only been a food shortage thanks to the maize issue, there also would have been a drop in what could be exported and/or traded for food and/or pay workers and hangers-on for Maya elite projects. In short, it seems that the droughts of the 9th century had several effects, none of which is surprising and all of which were bad. It’s just that now we have data on what some of these effects that we considered possible or likely did actually occur.

(Footnote: discussions of the “Maya collapse” make it seem like everyone died; this isn’t the case. It was a blinking out of Maya elite culture, as defined for example by Long Count dated monuments and polychrome-codex-style pottery with hieroglyphic texts, in the central and southern lowlands of the Maya area. Some segments of the population did die, but elsewhere, namely in the highlands to the south and the Yucatan peninsula to the south, Maya civilization survived, transformed somewhat, and thrived. And even in the central and southern lowlands, the commoners who were left went back to their more sustainable ways. The Lacandon Maya who survive to this day, after all, led archaeologists to many of the sites that initially sparked the imaginations of Western archaeologists in the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s.)