The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability
The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability

The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability

by Gyles Iannone

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ISBN-13: 9781607322801
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 03/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Gyles Iannone is associate professor of anthropology at Trent University.

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The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context

Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability

By Gyles Iannone

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-280-1



Resilience, Vulnerability, and the Study of Socioecological Dynamics


This volume examines the developmental trajectory of ancient Maya civilization, with particular emphasis on two themes: climate change, specifically droughts, and what are deemed to have been a series of periodic "collapses," including the infamous Terminal Classic collapse (AD 750–1050). The principal goal is to critical assess the drought-induced collapse models that have become increasingly popular of late — both within and outside of Maya studies — in light of our ever-more-comprehensive understanding of ancient Maya culture history. The aim is not to challenge the idea that severe droughts periodically impacted ancient Maya communities — this seems irrefutable given the multitude of data sets generated over the past three decades — but rather to better understand the timing and intensity of these droughts, and to provide a more nuanced understanding of socioecological dynamics, with specific reference to what makes communities resilient or vulnerable when faced with environmental change.

In order to achieve the aforementioned goal, the contributors to this volume strive to generate a better understanding of a number of issues, including the following: How useful is the concept of "collapse" and how can it be applied consistently in our studies of past societies? How severe was a purported drought episode in terms of duration, decline in rainfall, availability of potable water, impact on agricultural production, or shock to the economy? How do we accurately assess the effects of a particular drought given the range of climate change proxies that are currently available? How do we effectively articulate the environmental and cultural sequences so as to generate a better understanding of how droughts and the suggested periods of "collapse" correlate with each other? How vulnerable were ancient Maya communities to climate change, given their long-term adaptation to fluctuating environmental conditions? How much regional, subregional, and microregional variation is there in terms of the purported collapse sequences? Did a specific drought affect all segments of a community similarly? Is there evidence to suggest that other factors played a role in the various demographic and/or political downturns recognized by archaeologists? What can we learn from the past that will help us model the potential future implications of how we currently interact with our environment, construed in the broadest sense to include climate, landscape, and resources?

The purpose of this introductory chapter is twofold. To begin, I discuss some of the concepts that facilitate the study of socioecological dynamics from an archaeological perspective. This is followed by a brief summary of some of the more salient issues that emerge from the various chapters in the volume.

Resilience Theory and Coupled Socioecological Systems

In recent years there has been a growing concern with how climate change, declining resources, landscape modifications, food security, and the increasingly interconnected nature of the world economy might impact global society during the twenty-first century. This has stimulated ever-more-sophisticated research aimed at examining the reciprocal, coevolutionary relationship between societies and their environments (e.g., Bennett, Cumming, and Peterson 2005; Berkes and Folke 1998a; Berkes and Folke 2003; Gual and Norgaard 2010; Gunderson and Holling 2002; Janssen et al. 2006; Liu et al. 2007; Mainwaring, Giegengack, and Vita-Finizi 2010; Rosen 2007; Scheffer 2009; Turner 2011; Turner, Davidson -Hunt, and O'Flaherty 2003; Walker and Salt 2006; Walker et al. 2004; Walker, Anderies, et al. 2006; Walker, Gunderson, et al. 2006; Weisz et al. 2001; Whitehead and Richerson 2009; Zhang et al. 2011). The expressed goal of this rapidly expanding research program is to model the potential outcomes of our contemporary actions, or inactions, as they relate to issues surrounding sustainability (Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007; Costanza et al. 2007; Dearing et al. 2007; Walker and Salt 2006:38), defined here as "the use of environment and resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ... Sustainability is a process, rather than an end-product" (Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2003:2–4); it "is achieved in a long-term trial and error process and maintained by constant adjustment" (Winiwarter 2003:93). One result of this new emphasis has been a refocusing of the natural and social sciences toward transdisciplinary research efforts aimed at exploring, in detail, the dynamic nature of coupled socioecological systems (Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007a; Costanza et al. 2007; Turner 2010).

The concept of resilience has become a key conceptual framework within this new research program. "Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance; to undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, and feedbacks" (Walker and Salt 2006:32; see also Berkes and Folke 1998b:6; Scheffer 2009:357). According to Charles Redman et al. (2007:118), resilience is fundamentally about the "the capacity of an institution to adjust to perturbations ... [It is not about] stability around a single state, but rather the possibility of multiple socioecological states that maintain the primary functional relationships of the socioecological system." The complexities inherent in the concepts of sustainability and resilience are readily apparent when one considers that resiliency is not always desirable, particularly if the system is currently in a stable, and highly resilient regime, but one that is unwanted; for example, a political regime that is firmly entrenched and totalitarian in operation may be highly resilient, but undesirable to the vast majority of the population (Walker and Salt 2006:37).

As indicated above, systems, from the perspective of resilience theory, differ in a number of subtle, but significant, ways from how they were viewed in some early archaeological applications (e.g., Binford 1965, 1972:106; cf. Weisz et al. 2001:121). For example, whereas the latter tended to emphasize "stability at a presumed steady-state, and ... resistance to a disturbance and the speed of return to an equilibrium point" — which was an approach that was linear, tied to cause-and-effect relationships, and facilitated "predictive science" — the former focuses more on the capacity to absorb disturbance without flipping into an alternative regime, and assumes the existence of complex adaptive systems in which the nature of change is difficult to predict (Berkes and Folke 1998b:12; Redman et al. 2007:119). The "capacity ... to manage resilience ... to avoid crossing into an undesirable system regime or to succeed in crossing into a desirable one" is referred to as "adaptability" (Walker and Salt 2006:163).


Although archaeologists have made some significant contributions to the study of long-term patterns of exploitation and overexploitation, generally referred to as global change archaeology (Benzing and Herrman 2003; Fisher, Hill, and Feinman 2009; Jacobsen and Firor. 1992; Redman 1999; Redman et al. 2004a, 2004b), resilience theory has not figured prominently in archaeology to date. Nevertheless, its potential was hinted at in some early discussions of the subject (Robert Adams 1978), and in recent years there has been a growing acceptance of the efficacy of the framework on the part of archaeologists studying in various parts of the world (e.g., Adams 2001; Blanton 2010; Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007a; Costanza et al. 2007; Dearing 2008; Delcourt and Delcourt 2004; Fisher, Hill, and Feinman 2009; Gabler 2009; Guttmann-Bond 2010; Hegmon et al. 2008; Janssen 2010; Kirch 2007; McAnany and Yoffee 2010a; Nelson et al. 2006; Peeples et al. 2006; Redman 2005; Redman and Kinzig 2003; Redman, Nelson, and Kinzig 2009; Tainter 2006), including the Maya subarea (Alexander 2010; Lucero, Gunn, and Scarborough 2011; McAnany and Gallareta Negrón 2010; Scarborough 2000, 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Scarborough and Burnside 2010a, 2010b; Scarborough and Lucero 2010). This call to arms has been encouraged by numerous scholars working within the new transdisciplinary framework, both inside and outside of archaeology, who have come to appreciate the crucial role that the discipline has to play in the future-looking modeling process, particularly with respect to examining issues of resilience and vulnerability over the long term (e.g., Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007a; Costanza et al. 2007; Guttmann-Bond 2010; O'Sullivan 2008; Redman 2005; Scheffer 2009:250–51; Smith 2010; Turchin 2008; van der Leeuw and Redman 2002; Wisner 2010; cf. Nash 2011). These researchers underscore the importance of archaeology's unique ability to generate and critically assess parallel or integrated histories for specific coupled socioecological systems (Costanza, Graumlich, and Steffen 2007:4–5; Kohler and van der Leeuw 2007; Wisner 2010:135). The importance of archaeology to this endeavor should be clear; given "its insight into tens of thousands of years of human activities in all parts of the globe, [it] is a tantalizing source of information on human-environmental relations" (Redman 1999:3–4). "Archaeologists, as purveyors of the past, are well equipped to bring this long-term perspective to bear on contemporary issues. Moreover, we are also trained to work in multiple scales of time and space as well as with scientists from various disciplines" (van der Leeuw and Redman 2002:597; see also Shryock and Smail 2011).

These detailed developmental sequences are required for the future -looking modeling exercise because (1) our models need to be broadly informed, and inclusive of the array of potential human-environment relationships that have existed in the past; (2) such sequences clearly enhance our ability to isolate significant developmental trends, and thus promote our capacity to understand the rationale behind human decision making as it relates to environmental change; and, (3) these sequences are essential if we hope to isolate the conditions under which environmental changes are likely to result in a more subtle "transition," or when they are liable to contribute to an actual collapse. Following Marianne Young et al. (2007:450), a "collapse is any situation where the rate of change to a system": (1) "has negative effects on human welfare, which, in the short or long term, are socially intolerable"; (2) "is more rapid and usually in the opposite direction to that preferred by at least some members of society," (3) "will result in a fundamental downsizing, a loss of coherence, and/or significant restructuring of the constellation of arrangements that characterize the system"; and, (4) "cannot be stopped or controlled via an incremental change in behavior, resource allocation, or institutional values."


With respect to building detailed, long-term sequences for coupled socioecological systems, it is not insignificant that "collapses in human -environment systems are often triggered by events or trends that have occurred long before, and thus the underlying processes can involve long time lags" (Young et al. 2007:449–50). Some of the more salient, and interconnected, concepts that aid in the examination of the long-term processes associated with resilience and vulnerability include societal metabolism, colonized ecosystems, niche construction, risk spirals, diminishing returns, path dependency, the sunk-cost effect, conformist social learning, rigidity traps, and poverty traps.

The concept of societal metabolism has ecological, economic, and social connotations, and specifically refers to the "material and energy flows which directly serve to sustain the human population or which are, to a very large extent, regulated and controlled by society" (Weisz et al. 2001:123–24; see also Fischer-Kowalski 2003; Haberl et al. 2011; Louwe-Kooijams 2003; Sieferle 2003). It therefore encompasses human nutrition, feed for livestock, and raw materials for construction and tool manufacture (Haberl et al. 2011:3). A society's metabolic profile will reflect its "mode of subsistence" (Fischer-Kowalski 2003:24). For example, whereas hunters and gatherers rely principally on the direct harvesting of biomass, agrarian societies are sustained by an elevated level of biomass that is obtained by colonizing and modifying natural ecosystems to generate higher yields (Fischer-Kowalski 2003; Haberl et al. 2011; Weisz et al. 2001:126–27). It is notable that "the larger (and denser) the population, and the larger its metabolism, the more natural systems have to be colonized in order to sustain this metabolism" (Fischer-Kowalski 2003:26).

Colonized ecosystems, also known as artificial or cultural landscapes, result from "the deliberate and sustained alteration of natural processes that aim at 'improving' them according to society's needs" (Weisz et al. 2001:123; see also Dearing et al. 2007:266; Fischer-Kowalski 2003; Haberl et al. 2011; Ponting 2007:67–69; Sieferle 2003; van der Leeuw 2007:214–15). Agriculture, for example, replaces natural ecosystems with agroecosystems that generate significantly higher biomass yields (Weisz et al. 2001:124). Nevertheless, as a result of efforts to maximize production by focusing economic attention and modes of intensification on certain key resources, these colonized ecosystems are less resilient because of the "weeding out" of diversity (cf. Sieferle 2003:134–35). In other words, "human beings initially adapt themselves to the dynamics of their environment, but over the long term societies' needs are best served by modifications to the environmental dynamics (Dearing et al. 2007:266; see also van der Leeuw 2007:215); this is also referred to as niche construction (Laland and Brown 2006; Laland and O'Brien 2010; Whitehead and Richerson 2009:269).

Returning to the idea of societal metabolism, it is significant that the reliance on such colonized systems may eventually force societies into what has been termed a risk spiral (Dearing et al. 2007:266; Fischer-Kowalski 2003:26; Müller-Herold and Sieferle 1997). According to Müller-Herold and Sieferle (1997:201–2): "a risk spiral is a dynamizing principle in the development of complex societies [wherein] the reduction of a particular risk leads to new types of uncertainty, which in turn require further (risky) innovations ... [and a] permanent innovation pressure [that is] responsible for the restless transformations in complex societies." Risk spirals are particularly significant to our understanding of societies based on agrarian modes of subsistence, where the "minimization of risk" is a basic coping strategy (Müller-Herold and Sieferle 1997:205, 208). For example, the need to increase productive capacity — whether to feed growing populations or service expanding tribute demands — may lead to innovations such as agricultural terracing, but if this strategy is successful it may stimulate greater population growth because of the "relaxing of fertility controls" (Müller-Herold and Sieferle 1997:205, 208), and/or an increase in elite construction projects and overall consumption of surplus, both of which would eventually require further expansion of productive capacity and hence new innovation. One must also be aware of the potential unintended consequences that emerge as the result of new strategies for managing risk. For example, the shift to irrigated fields in arid regions may initially bring higher yields, but result in salinization and soil degradation over time (Haberl et al. 2011:3).


Excerpted from The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context by Gyles Iannone. Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Contents Figures Tables Contributors 1: Introduction 2: The Dynamics of Ancient Maya Developmental History 3: Assessing the Great Maya Droughts 4: Agricultural Landscapes, Deforestation, and Drought Severity 5: Climate Change in the Ancient Maya Forest 6: The End of the Beginning 7: A Tale of Three Cities 8: Collapse without Drought 9: The Classic Maya Collapse, Water, and Economic Change in Mesoamerica 10: Water in the West 11: Oxygen Isotopes from Maya Archaeological Deer Remains 12: The Prehistoric Maya of Northern Belize 13: An Archaeological Consideration of Long-Term Socioecological Dynamics on the Vaca Plateau, Belize 14: Tracking Climate Changein the Ancient Maya World through Zooarchaeological Habitat Analyses 15: Maya Drought and Niche Inheritance References Index

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