Posted by: Johan Normark | November 15, 2011

Early Classic aquatic motifs and the Late Formative drought

Apart from the Terminal Classic droughts that have been my main focus in my earlier posts on climate change in the Maya area there is also substantial evidence that the Late Formative/Preclassic also experienced a major drought (sometime in the interval AD 150-200). Since this coincides with the abandonment of the major sites in the Mirador basin it has been argued that a drought also caused the Late Formative collapse. New sites emerged as the major political centers in the Early Classic period. This also coincides with changes in the way the Early Classic fine polychrome ceramic vessels were decorated. According to Patrice Bonnafoux figurative art and terrestrial waters became popular. This, he argues, has to do with the effect of the disastrous drought.

The aquatic iconography consists of the water-band which consists of parallel lines and in-between them there is a strip of dots and points. Rectilinear bands may represent still waters and undulating bands may therefore represent turbid water. There is also a rare water-band glyph which reads as polaw/palaw, “ocean, sea, lake.” These water-bands define various scenes with aquatic birds, alligators, frogs, turtles and water lilies.

Bonnafoux has studied catalogues of various exhibitions and notes that the iconography of the Preclassic effigy vessels lack dominant themes whereas 34% of the Early Classic corpus contains aquatic themes. This decreases to 16.5% in the Late Classic period. In the Late Classic the “Water Complex” has been reduced to secondary iconographic elements on the pottery.

I believe Bonnafoux is correct in his overall analysis.  However, in the conclusion he states that “the fading reference to the “Water Complex” in Late Classic iconography might reflect the fading memory of the drought during more auspicious times” (p 41). If we are to follow the drought hypothesis for major social, political and iconographic changes, one needs to take into account the so-called hiatus. This hiatus separates the Early Classic from the Late Classic in the Central Lowlands (i.e. Tikal). Gill argues for a drought related event for the hiatus as well. If that is the case the “Water Complex” would have increased in importance again, not fade away. I, on the other hand, do not favor a drought related cause for the hiatus because the evidence rather points toward changes in the failed political success for Tikal. Hence, Bonnafoux’s hypothesis withholds but he does not bring up Gill’s argument for a drought around the hiatus.

Bonnafoux, Patrice. 2011. Water, droughts, and Early Classic Maya worldviews. In Ecology, Power, and Religion in Maya Landscapes (eds Christian Isendahl & Bodil Liljefors Persson). Verlag Anton Saurwein: Markt Schwaben, pp. 31-48.

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