Posted by: Johan Normark | February 14, 2011

Yet another drought related explanation for Mesoamerican collapses

Readers of this blog should by now know that I am not very fond of palaeoclimatic explanations for major changes in ancient social formations. In several past posts I have discussed some of the problems with Richardson Gill’s “mega-drought” hypothesis for the “Maya collapse”. Scientific American now reports that “super-droughts” have caused the collapse of both the Toltecs and the Aztecs. Now, this short article, written by someone who is not too acquainted with Mesoamerican archaeology, contains many mistakes that I sincerely hope are not to be found in the peer-reviewed journal where the study will be published.

The obvious mistakes, also noted by some of the commentators, is the inclusion of a picture of the Terminal Classic Castillo at Chichen Itza (a Maya building that earlier was believed to represent Postclassic “Toltec-Maya” architecture), the statement that the “prime time for the Aztecs ran from 1500 to 1700” (the Spaniards and their allies conquered Tenochtitlan 1519-1521), and the location of Central Mexico in Central America (Central America begins by definition south of Mexico).

One thing that probably still will be around in the peer-reviewed article is the idea of a Toltec civilization. Only an older generation of Mesoamericanists would still cling to that outdated concept that is roughly supposed to explain the Central Mexican cultural history between the end of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Aztecs. I doubt that there has ever been a “Toltec” civilization in the same sense as the other civilizations of Mesoamerica. Tula was not the capital of a huge empire (not compared to Teotihuacán and the Aztecs). Tula and Chichen Itza were part of a large interaction system, maybe even a “world religion” related to Quetzalcoatl. There was no centre for this interaction that might represent this Toltec civilization that supposedly collapsed in a drought.

It is getting really tiresome to read all these palaeoclimatologists who come up with simplistic models for social change. We are taught that “prolonged drought over Mesoamerica during the early Colonial era may have interacted with epidemic disease to contribute to the catastrophic depopulation of Aztec Mexico in the aftermath of the [Spanish] conquest”. Now, it has not occurred to the authors that the colonial change itself was severe (even if we exclude possible droughts, famines and diseases). The Spaniards reorganized the whole political economy and it is quite likely that this reorganization made the social formations more vulnerable to droughts. For example, within a century after the conquest there were more cattle in Central Mexico than there were people. Cattle need far more water than people and hence affected land rights and strategies to deal with stresses.

I suppose the authors make the same mistake as Gill and many other palaeoclimatologists. That is, they project modern or Colonial situations into the Prehispanic past and ignore the complexity of the archaeological record. Perhaps I should finish up my own peer-reviewed article on droughts and land use in the Cochuah region and send it away. These studies annoy me particularly since the authors say: “we don’t know for sure if it caused a decline” [and] we don’t know for sure if it caused the collapse of the ancient city of Tula.” No, they do not know but why do they try to get media’s attention then? Because it is political correct with these studies nowadays?



  1. Hello Johan,

    I guess I must be a lot older than I thought, at least from an earlier generation, as I am one of those convinced that there was a “Toltec civilization”. Furthermore, I think that there is a lot more validity to the traditional “Toltec conquest” model of Yucatan history than most of my Mayanist colleagues are willing to admit. And over the past few years I have noticed that I am not alone in this sentiment, and that at least a few of my epigrapher colleagues also think that the monuments at Chichen Itza provide strong evidence for a conquest of that site that involved Toltecs. The name glyphs in the Great Ballcourt and other traditionally “Toltec” buildings are clearly in the Central Mexican script, not in the traditional Maya script, for example. As you know, this issue is quite complicated, and I don’t want to get into it here. However, I would like to address your comment that “Tula was not the capital of a huge empire” .

    You clearly follow Smith and Montiel’s work on Mesoamerican empires. I must admit I am highly skeptical of their work, especially on the idea that they have a model by which we can identify ancient empires in this region. For instance, they see Teotihuacan as, at best, the capital of a small mini-empire that stretched no further than the central Valley of Mexico. Their work, however, fails to account for the Maya hieroglyphic evidence, which more and more indicates that Teotihuacan established itself over most of the Maya region in late-4th and 5th centuries A.D. Jesper Nielsen and I are writing a book on this information now, and both of us have written before on this situation. The fact is, the archaeological record is highly equivocal, especially when it comes to hegemonic empires. Smith believes he has managed to identify the Aztec/Mexica empire archaeologically, but what he chooses not to emphasize is that he went into the field with the historical accounts that told him where to expect Mexica fortifications and settlements. In his article with Montiel he admits that his model fails quite badly in Oaxaca, where historical accounts clearly indicate a Mexica conquest, and yet there is practically no archaeological evidence for this. Assuming that ethnohistorical accounts are only valid when corroborated by archaeological evidence is clearly a mistake, but one I see so many archaeologists making.

    As for Tula being too small to be a capital of an empire, or merely being one node in a large “world religion” interaction sphere, I note that two of the greatest ancient empires, those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, had no great central capital cities either. Personally, I suspect that just as both of these empires quickly broke up into separate smaller empires, ruled separately by different members of the conquering elite, so the Toltec empire had separate capitals at Tula and Chichen, and perhaps at other places as well. This should not be too surprising, given the Macedonian and Mongol analogies, as well as that of the Western and Eastern Roman empires.

    As for the “world religion”, I simply don’t buy this argument, at least not for the purposes for which it is promoted. The idea of a Quetzalcoatl “world religion” is part of the popularity of world systems approaches. What most archaeologists don’t seem to recognize is that world systems theory was originally put forth to explain the world economy in a world composed of empires. In Mesoamerican archaeological theory world systems models are presented invariably as alternatives to empire. However, it must be noted that they do not preclude the existence of empires. Furthermore, the idea of a Quetzalcoatl world religion that is extremely militaristic makes no sense if there isn’t any basis for its popularity. Proponents of this idea claim there were no great empires at this time, just a whole bunch of petty lords all dressing up the same and worshipping the same martial god(s). But why reject your group’s traditional gods and adopt foreign ones, and foreign military costumes if those foreigners aren’t extremely successful in warfare? This is the same problem I have with those who promote the idea that the Maya merely adopted the military costume of Teotihuacan, yet reject Teotihuacan as an imperial power.

    Once I am finished with my dissertation (on the Collapse, which, as you know, I do believe was caused by a major drought) and this book with Jesper on the Teotihuacan empire I want to carry out a full study of the Tula-Chichen issue. I have a few comments I’d like to make on your argument for settlement relocation as the Maya response to drought, a position that I agree with in general, but whose ramifications I see in a very different light than you do. So I will do that in a separate post. Cheers,


  2. Hi Stan,

    Maybe I should have stated that I do not believe in the idea of a Maya civilization either. What I mainly argue against is the essentialist concept of a civilization collapsing because of a drought. What is it that collapses except for the fact that the top stratum of these hierarchical societies momentarily disappears? I am more in favor of resilience than dramatic collapses.

    If you by Toltec civilization refers to a Central Mexican hegemonic polity/empire that for some unknown period of time controlled several sites in Mesoamerica I have little problem with what you say. Undoubtedly these contacts brought along Mexican writing to Chichen Itza, Chacmools, etc. But was this a Toltec civilization, a culture area in the old sense of the word? My assemblage approach allows for parts to break out of wholes and reenter new wholes (for example, architectural features, such as talud-tablero design from Teotihuacan merged with architecture at Tikal). That will become part of a particular assemblage that is not “signified” by an overarching culture. The eventual disappearance of these traits is not evidence of a collapse of this imaginary culture, just the dissolvement of specific assemblage(s). Other assemblages may remain intact. When I say “an earlier generation of Mesoamericanists” I mean adherents to a perspective that deals with large “cultural area chunks” that follow each other in a linear fashion.

    Your proposed model of a Toltec empire that splits up into new capitals is interesting and is not at all at odds with my view (but do you still see it as one empire if it has several contemporary capitals?). I am aware of Jesper’s work on hegemonic empires but I doubt that the possible Tula polity (or any other Central Mexican polities during the post-Teotihuacano period) was fairly long-lived and that it all alone can explain the persistence of the “International style”. I am not in favor of the world-systems approach since it has a top-down perspective (I always move in the opposite direction).

    I disagree with your analogies. Genghis Khan was a nomad and the assumed Toltecs were not anything like that. I can see the possibility of nomads with horses being able to control vast areas for a brief period but is that a suitable analogy for a people lacking horses? Further, once the Mongols had taken control of areas they eventually settled in capitals, such as Kublai Khan in Beijing. Alexander planned to make Babylon into his new capital but he died before being able to do so. However, was not Pella the official capital? Alexander would not have been able to accomplish anything without the preparations Philip II had made (the Macedonian phalanx, etc.). As for Alexander’s succeeding Hellenistic empires/kingdoms, they have left substantial archaeological evidence all the way to Baktria.

    I agree that Ringle’s world religion is a highly problematic concept and that a political power should be associated with it but only as a concrete assemblage, not as an abstraction called the “Toltec civilization”.

    I would be interesting to see how you settled for a drought related cause for the collapse. In your MA you favor political reasons for the so-called hiatus but the palaeoclimatologists often propose drought related causes for that period as well. It seems strange that the drought only would affect the Tikal/Teotihuacan alliance (as you call it) but not the Kan kingdom during the hiatus. Why not political reasons behind the later collapse then?

  3. I am from England and currently studying the Ancient America’s and it has to be one of the weakest areas of archaeology I have ever studied. Nobody presents any real evidence apart from the Palaeoclimate folk. Its all just blind assertions often with no sites or evidence to re-inforce. I am writing an essay titled ‘What evidence is there in the literature for the collapse of the Mayan
    Civilisation, and are these proposals reflected in the Archaeology
    of the period?’

    Anyone like to point me to some real archaeology for it? Not one paper has even mentioned a place, site or excavation.

  4. You can always look into this one:
    I am very suspicious of the palaeoclimatic models. Yes, they show that climate change occurred but they use that as a single cause for the “collapse” but the archaeological record is more complex. The whole idea of collapse derives from the archaeological record, not the palaeoclimatic record. It simply is the cessation of the erection of major monuments followed or accompanied by abandonment of sites. That is the evidence for the collapse, the reasons behind it is another matter…


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