Posted by: Johan Normark | April 5, 2011

Black boxing the mega drought

I am back from the SAA conference in Sacramento. I will write about some of the interesting papers that I attended but that will have to wait until a later post. On my trip I brought along Graham Harman’s book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009) and it partly covers a topic that appeared right in front of me in several of the papers and sessions that I attended. This is the process of black boxing the mega drought hypothesis for the Maya collapse. Harman writes that “we have a true black box when a statement is simply presented as a raw fact without any reference to its genesis or even its author” (p 37). A black box is “something we rely on as a given in order to take further steps, never worrying about how it came into being” (p 38-39).

In my paper with Justine Shaw I argued, contrary to the others at the conference, that the mega drought hypothesis for the collapse largely relies on direct historical and comparative analogies with how Colonial and modern droughts affected people and settlement. This is most obvious in Richardson Gill’s research. Just compare these two quotes from Gill and the historian Nancy Farriss:

We do know from Colonial historical records that periods of drought inflicted severe mortality on the Maya, and it would stretch the imagination to believe that such clear correlations in Colonial times would not be in effect in ancient Maya times as well (Gill 2000:16)

We have no way of comparing the mortality caused by famines before and after the conquest. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Maya would have fared better without the sometimes well meaning but almost invariably disastrous intervention of the Spanish (Farriss 1984:63).

Quite contradicting statements! Since Gill largely relies on Farriss for his study I wonder exactly how he could settle with that statement above.

In the papers at the conference we were given evidence that droughts had occurred, such as the interment of artifacts and human remains in passages of cenotes that now are submerged (hence, they must have been placed there during a period when water level was lower than now). In our paper Justine and I clearly stated that we do not disagree with the fact that droughts occurred, just that their effects on people and social groups still is unknown since the mega drought hypothesis rely on much later data that has been exported into the Prehispanic past and correlated with both archaeological data and palaeoclimatic data. I am seriously skeptical of this method that now is getting hidden in that black box. Drought = collapse is now a raw fact. Let us see how my attempts to enter that empty box and retrieve Pandora’s hope at the bottom will be received. I am not expecting standing ovations…

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