Posted by: Johan Normark | April 21, 2009

Climate and the “Maya collapse” pt 2: Irresponsible authors?

Literature on social, political, economical and ideological collapse(s) of ancient civilizations caused by climate change is abundant. Such books have become far more noticed in the broader society. Brian Fagan has in recent years produced several books on the topic of climate change and he has even attended the political satirist Jon Stewart’s “Today Show.” Climate has therefore become business in archaeology. Archaeological research receives funding to investigate how we can learn from the past for future solutions. This kind of research is perhaps possible to some extent and there are good intentions behind this as well, but my current research attempts to show that there are far more complexities in the relation between past climate and ancient societies than usually is admitted in these books. Changes in local and regional settlement patterns reveal the flaws of these books that often have global perspectives. The fewer kinds of sources one has, the easier it is to propose climate related causes for social change. Another option is to focus on really long-term fluctuations (spanning millennia) and exemplify with areas where changes are clear (such as Sahara).

Joseph Tainter (2008) has recently reviewed four books discussing the collapse phenomena, and two of these books are directly concerned about the Maya area. The books are Jared Diamond’s (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Niccolo Caldararo’s (2004) Sustainability, Human Ecology, and the Collapse of Complex Societies: Economic Anthropology and a 21st Century Adaption, Richardson Gill’s (2000) The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death and David Webster’s (2002) The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse. Tainter has written widely on collapse himself and these books are criticized.

Tainter suggests that collapse theories express ideals and a critique of the social world, highly affected by contemporary issues (p. 343). This is also my view of the whole collapse debate. Tainter lists the different approaches in collapse literature. The lost in confidence in rulers has been one common factor in earlier models, and Webster include this as a major factor at Copan (Honduras). Another variant of this approach is that the fault is an entire social strata and in particular the elites.

A third approach sees collapses as the effect of resource scarcity due to normal environmental variation, drastic climate changes or human mismanagement. A frequent postulate is that societies collapse because they destroy their environment and therefore our own society will collapse. Much of the current literature tries to connect past collapses with current ecological problems (p. 345). Nowadays it is argued that societies collapse because they “overshot the carrying capacities of their environments, degrading their support bases in the process. And since it happened to past societies, it could happen to us too” (p. 346). This is like a Greek tragedy that “unfolds even as numerous Cassandras (including Diamond and Caldararo) warn us to mend our ways. Some students of ancient societies perceive in this development that we now have an opportunity to contribute to broad social thought, even to human well-being” (p. 346). Diamond is given the strongest critique. Tainter (p. 363) argues that “the merest digging shows [Diamond’s book] to be confused, inconsistent, based on poor scholarship, and generally trivial.” I cannot but agree. Diamond also discusses the Maya (among other examples) but Tainter shows that despite Diamond’s purpose, he fails to show in all his cases that past societies collapse due to overshoot and degradation (p. 349-351).

There is yet another approach to ancient social collapse and this one do not put the blame on the humans. Collapses occur out of bad luck. This approach offers a simple solution (p. 346). Gill belongs to this category and I will focus on him in another post. Tainter shows the shaky foundation upon which Gill’s argument rests (and I will outline some other of his shortcomings elsewhere). Tainter shows that Gill’s argument is full of qualifiers: “if his approach to dating volcanic eruptions is valid, and if the Mesoamerican volcanoes El Chichón and Popocatépetl both erupted in the ninth century, and if these eruptions induced periods of cold; and if cold is associated with drought in the Maya Lowlands, than these eruptions “may have been accompanied by drought in the Lowlands”” (p. 356). Not a very strong argument… See Gill in action in his old BBC production:

Webster is treated less harsh because he has the broadest perspective but as is common among “collapse” proponents “Webster assumes implicitly that loss of confidence in kingship as the Maya conceived it meant necessarily that no other structure of hierarchy could emerge. This is a troubling assumption. Misfortunes come and go, but institutions of leadership usually persist…Where such institutions are overthrown a new hierarchy will typically emerge…” (p. 360). Mayanists tend to argue that kingship disappeared (see Lucero 2006), but that is not what we know of Postclassic Mayapan and elites existed well into the early neo-colonial period around 1750.

Tainter emphasizes how these books can or will be received among the non-specialist. Researchers must take care with what they write since archaeological literature on collapse has become source of inspiration for investing advice and political decisions. Since political leaders, agronomists, and investors will learn these works at least second-hand it is important to show the problems inherent in these approaches. Authors, like Diamond is irresponsible in this sense (p. 362-364). Even if authors does not argue for practical lessons of their writing (like Gill and Webster), readers are now sensible to ideas regarding collapse, sustainability, resources and climate so they will make the connections to the present in any case (p. 363). So, when archaeologists claim that they can solve present famine in the “third world” by learning from the past, they should have very strong support for their claims. Unfortunately, as Tainter shows, this is seldom the case.

Tainter, Joseph A. (2008) Collapse, sustainability, and the environment: How authors choose to fail or succeed. Reviews in Anthropology 37:342-371.


  1. I think Diamond has a point though, when it concerns Easter Island. That case is more clear cut than the case of the mayas.

  2. His discussion on Easter Island is even more problematic:


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