Posted by: Johan Normark | May 13, 2009

Climate and the “Maya collapse” pt 5: comments on a recent blog post

Michael Smith at Publishing Archaeology refers to an article by Heather Pringle that summarises the climate debate in Maya research. I have not had time to read the article yet but it appears to be similar to my own perspective, that is,  a willingness to combine archaeological data with palaeoclimatic data. There is another article by Holley Moyes and others which will be published in 2009 (Latin American Antiquity). In this article palaeoclimatic data is combined with archaeological data and it shows the increasing use of caves in Western Belize during droughts (the Late Classic drought cult as Moyes calls it) and the final termination of cave use.

However, my conclusion of this “drought cult” is different (I do work in the northern lowlands and not in Belize). There was for sure a major decrease in settlement density in the area east of Lake Chichancanab during the late Terminal Classic and an increased use of caves preceeding this. In this case, people settled near caves (which they did not do in Belize, apart from Cahal Witz Na) and there is no evidence of there ever being a termination of cave use in the Cochuah region. At least one possible Postclassic settlement clustered around a cave (Gruta de Alux) and Colonial use at Chakal Ja’as and Santa Cruz can also be detected.

As mentioned in my earlier posts on the “Maya collapse”, there was a dense Prehispanic settlement south of the Chicxulub fracture zone that did not depend on larger water sources (the possible Prehispanic wells are few compared to the Colonial and modern wells that support a much smaller population). The Spanish Colonial border did not extend far beyond this fracture zone and the Colonial economy apparently depended to a greater extent on permanent water sources (cenotes). Since Gill uses Colonial analogies for his interpretations he fails to see that his model explains how people reacted to Colonial droughts, but not Prehispanic droughts. That is one reason why he does not refer to any substantial Prehispanic settlement data (particularly in the Ancient Mesoamerica article from 2007). In short, the archaeological data from an area 7-30 km from the climate data obtained from Lake Chichancanab do not completely fit Gill’s all too generalizing model. Climate change did occur but people had strategies to tackle them, Colonial politics and Catholicism made it difficult to maintain strategies. But Gill can always claim that no society will survive even the worst of droughts. This is true, but he downplays the archaeological evidence (he focus on the lack of evidence, that is, lack of larger settlements).

I am perhaps a climate alarmist concerning our contemporary climate problems but I am sceptical to the too linear causality proposed by most palaeoclimatologists. Climate was for sure part of the process, but not the driving cause (no such thing as a driving cause existed, that would be an arborescent perspective).



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