The world's most successful civilizations have been studied in detail. Part of those studies focus on reasons for their decline. The details differ yet there are remarkable similarities among the decline of all great civilizations. There is still disagreement about how and why the Maya Empire declined, but what we know for certain is that it happened relatively fast. Most of their great cities were abandoned beginning about 1,100 years ago and were relics just 200 years later. Recent geo-climatic discoveries confirm that some regions of Mesoamerica experienced large, sudden climate change at that time which led to the worst local drought in 7,000 years. Most Mayanists now believe that this single event triggered the decline.
California is currently experiencing its worst drought in 7,000 years. When COP 21 (the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) began yesterday it was the largest ever gathering of world leaders. While many of those leaders may be forgiven for not knowing the official title of COP 21, I wonder how many are aware of the similarity between the Mesoamerican and Californian situations.
That similarity is not lost on those surviving Maya who know the history of their ancestors. The drought in Mesoamerica would have inevitably placed a great strain on essential resources as people migrated to the larger cities. These resources would have become scarcer leading to famine and disease. We know that Maya societies were socially and economically very stratified — the elite minority held political, religious and economic dominion over the masses. In the face of declining food and water it is plausible that popular revolt against the elite could have followed.
We also know that Maya rulers controlled their citizens, at least in part, by their ability to use science to make predictions. Unlike the leaders at COP 21, they wouldn't have been able to predict the imminent climate change; so they would likely have suffered loss of confidence from the masses — which could have fueled dissent and popular uprising. The archeological record shows that the Maya were a war mongering people before the collapse of their empire.
Predictably, in the days leading up to COP 21 there were many stories about climate change. In S19E08 of South Park one of the more salient social comments was that most people can no longer distinguish between news and advertising. Predictably, also, even after only one day the reaction to COP 21 is ranging from climate change denial to the proclamation of the success of the conference.
The young girl in this photo is Tz'utujil Maya. What struck me about the scene when I photographed it is that, despite her own youth, she is already doing more than some world leaders to ensure the continued survival of her people. While her house appears to be the relics of her people's former glory, a closer look at the date, 1926, reveals that she is doing it a thousand years later.
If you live in a world where your climate is under the threat of irreversible change, where the balance of political and economic power is skewed toward an elite minority, where natural resources are overextended and people are starving or where your rulers are focused on war mongering at the expense of their people, you can, perhaps, learn something from this young girl.
The Tz'utujil Maya are featured in our documentary, Ancient and Modern Mayan Peoples.
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