By Sam Low
a century or so, the decline and fall of Maya cities in the
jungles of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras was an enigma. Recent
work in the ancient city of Copan and other sites, however,
has shown the Maya collapse was caused by overpopulation and
depletion of natural resources. The evidence is found in forensic
examination of human skeletons which reveals the unmistakable
stress of malnourishment and from excavations showing erosion
of once fertile soil from nearby hillsides due to over farming.
In the 8th century AD, 25,000 people lived in Copan. Then, within
a hundred years or so, the population declined and the once
thriving city began to melt into the jungle. Analysis of ancient
pollen shows that by about 1200 AD a forest had grown up where
fields were once tilled.
On Easter Island, similar research shows a steady rise in population
followed by a rapid decline and an abrupt end to the carving
of those great enigmatic statues - the Moai. One such statue,
the grandest of all by far (65 feet tall and weighing 270 tons)
lies half finished in a quarry - as if the islanders had thrown
down their tools and walked away in a single day.
at Sand Canyon Pueblo in Colorado, archeologists have discovered
that houses were burned prior to a rapid abandonment of the
city. In the charred remains they discovered the bodies of Anasazi
residents who had met a violent death.
- presumably over scarce food resources - accompanied the demise
of all these cultures. In Easter Island and among the Anasazi
there's also evidence of cannibalism in the last years.
learned these facts because I made a series of PBS films about
the subject some years ago.
archeologists do not believe the Maya saw the end coming. The
population decline would have been slow at first - a few more
babies expiring at birth and an earlier demise for the elders.
This trend might have lasted - increasing only slightly - over
a few generations. Then came a more rapid acceleration of the
death rate. Then warfare.
archeologists believe these earlier people may have suffered
from a universal human condition - it is the nature of Homo
Sapiens to be short sighted. At best, we seem able to extend
our vision a generation or so into the future.
more I see what's going on today - the more I believe that generalization.
science allows us to monitor our environment in ways earlier
civilizations could not. According to some estimates, for example,
human societies today use 130,000 barrels of oil every minute
to power our cars, air conditioners and warplanes. In America
alone, we use 20,000,000 barrels daily. The burning of so much
fuel creates a blanket of pollution that causes our earth to
retain heat and may reasonably lead to increased sea levels
and droughts. Acid rain pollutes our ponds and oceans. Some
scientists predict that known oil reserves will be depleted
within the next 20 years or so.
The Maya, looking out over their eroding fields, may be forgiven
their failure to understand the fate that awaited them. Mayan
scientists elevated their eyes to the stars to create a sophisticated
calendar and divine messages from the gods. And from a planetary
perspective, the demise of Maya civilization was a tiny event
because their feeble agricultural technology damaged only a
small portion of Earth. But today, we have evolved to a point
where we are equipped to irrevocably damage the world we live
in. We are also better equipped to see the end coming.
question remains - will we be long sighted enough to do something
about it - or will the same human flaw that led to the destruction
of earlier societies prove fatal to our own as well?