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 Only an older generation of Mesoamericanists would still cling to that outdated concept that is roughly supposed to explain the Central Mexican cultural history between the end of Teotihuacán and the rise of the Aztecs.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?