Posted by: Johan Normark | April 11, 2012

Bring out your dead

During the Easter I had a long debate with a fellow Mayanist on facebook regarding the mega-drought hypothesis and the Maya collapse. We disagree on several issues but in general we agree that the drought(s) affected the Maya communities in negative ways. Where we primarily differ, as I see it, is how we interpret the archaeological record. I will here focus on an issue that we never discussed. My fellow Mayanist argues that almost all people died from the drought(s) and therefore the sites were abandoned. An underlying assumption in this argument seems to be that there is no reason to search for alternative explanations of why sites were abandoned because the drought is the only large scale phenomenon that would affect many sites at the same time.  

What we do have are abandoned sites that sometimes have Postclassic and Colonial settlement as well, but there is at least a hiatus of various durations. Abandoned sites are, however, not evidence that almost all inhabitants died even if this event occurred during a drought (which no longer is seen as severe but far milder according to a recent study). Numerous bodies of dead people should be found at the sites. Now, the remains of most people that have ever existed are not preserved. Most commoners of the Maya area, the majority of the population that presumably died, are underrepresented in the burial record even during periods without droughts.

Still, the death rate increases at an alarming speed during a drought and a famine. If this is what happened just before the abandonment of a site there should be an increase of burials and even mass burials at this time, even among the elite stratum whose burials are better preserved. I am not talking about a little decrease here but one of several hundred percent. Millions of people should have died (according to Gill who bases these figures on demographic calculations). The drought did not occur at an instant and left all dead people lying scattered on the ground to be eaten by vultures, etc. People buried the dead ones and remained in place, at least in the beginning of the drought before they realized the magnitude of it. Colonial records indicate that most people died in the first two years of a drought and these durations of droughts are common and I would suspect people stayed in place for at least that long. Only at a later time, after the second year or so, they would probably leave if they had no other option. Those people who left and presumably died in the forests or rather in the deforested areas in-between sites may not have been buried so their remains may not be preserved. The elite could potentially afford to leave an affected area but since the elite stratum was the one often in conflict with other elites in neighboring polities they would probably be the ones that had least option to move away to or through a hostile territory. Therefore, if the elite remained in place there would be a significant increase of burials just before the abandonment. This is not the case. Even if the drought was so severe that almost all died within a few months (it takes some time for water to evaporate or to be consumed), the number of burials would still be great, particularly since in most cases no large scale settlement followed the abandonment that could disturb the remains.

There would still be plenty of remains of commoners as well. If we take Cancuén as an example, we have evidence of a mass burial of executed elite people located inside a cistern. Despite the poor treatment of these people, their remains are still preserved so why would not the remains of millions of commoners that died from famine or drought during a few years be preserved even if they were placed in shallow burials? Did they cremate the bodies further away from the settlement? No, the forest had largely been deforested and the remaining parts were needed for agricultural purposes. Burnt bones would have been encountered during extensive settlement surveys but are unknown as far as I know. We have no evidence that the Maya practiced something similar to Tibetan “sky burials” so we can leave that option. So, if one cannot point out a dramatic rise in the amount of burials or dead bodies at the time of the abandonment one has no case for the argument that a drought killed most of the inhabitants. Bring out your dead.

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  1. Johan,

    I see you have some new points that you think completely undermines my position on the Collapse. I am always looking for opinions on this matter, in order to strengthen my own dissertation and make certain I am not making any critical errors, so I thank you for your contribution. And, probably no surprise, I think you make a number of errors in your own counter arguments here, so I hope you don’t mind my response.

    First, you obviously think the new model of a less severe series of droughts undermines the whole hypothesis that drought did in the Classic Maya. The new model argues that there was 40% less precipitation, which you describe as “far milder”. I don’t think you are appreciating these numbers. 40% less precipitation is anything but “mild”. During the great droughts of the 1930s in the American Midwest, precipitation in Nebraska fell only 27.5%, but crop yields plummeted 75%. And this is with modern crops. As I have pointed out, the Classic Maya were uniquely vulnerable to drought because of their primitive agriculture, food storage and transportation systems. A 40% drop in precipitation in just one year would have been devastating given the high population levels at the end of the Classic period. Just a few years of that would have proven catastrophic.

    As for the lack of bodies, this is actually quite easy to explain. Bodies don’t preserve well in the tropics. So if the bodies weren’t buried, we have no reason to expect to find any trace of them. After all, we all excavate through top soil and hardly find any trace of the huge numbers of animals that have occupied these regions over the past thousand years. How much less should we expect to find human bodies if they are from over a thousand years ago?

    Now, you do raise a good point about the high numbers of deaths that must have occurred early on. So why don’t we find an increase in number here? Well, that again is easy to account for, once one acknowledges the inherent problems of archaeology. Let’s say that there were a bunch of deaths at around 810, during the first great period of drought. The survivors bury the dead and archaeologists dig them up. Dating these tombs will be done either by ceramic or radiocarbon dating. The ceramics will be Late Classic in date (since Terminal Classic ceramics are not yet or just coming into vogue) and the burials will be dated to the Late Classic period. And, what do you know, most sites have more Late Classic burials than of any other date. Radiocarbon dating of tombs is far less common, but even here we have the problem of precisely dating the tomb. If there is even a precisely dated tomb, to 810, the +/- dates will mean that it could be either classified as a Late Classic or Terminal Classic tomb. Again, little reason to expect that we would expect to find a sudden spike in tombs proving the drought hypothesis.

    When we add in the fact that we already know we are getting way less than half of the Maya population showing up in burials at all, we know that the Maya must have been disposing of the dead in ways that we can’t account for. And yet, we see that you reject out of hand any notion that the Maya might have used Tibetan style “sky burials”. This is all the more strange as you have no problem in accepting arguments for which there is no archaeological or ethnohistoric evidence of use in the Maya area, such as the use of skin water bags, when you need to in order to make your point. You just won’t accept those same kinds of arguments when they are used by others to argue for views contrary to your own, apparently.

    In any event, it is clear that the lack of burials that one can associate with a drought is not a problem for any drought hypothesis. We wouldn’t expect to find a whole lot of extra or mass burials. The few we do find, such as the one at Cancuén, are products of very special preservation conditions. There is no reason to expect to find such conditions, and such preservation, everywhere.

    Thanks for your perspective and the discussion.


    PS I am curious as to why you insist on referring to me throughout this post as a “fellow Mayanist”. You have had no problem in the past in referring to me by name in your other posts, even having a tag for me. The indirect reference just strikes me as odd. Cheers.

  2. Stan,

    I have a busy day today so I will reply later. However, the reason why I called you a “fellow Mayanist” is simple. I felt the discussion became heated and since it was on facebook maybe you wanted to keep it there. Before my comments on the “dead” went out of memory I simply wanted to write it down, at least for my own sake in case I will use it in my own study (that is what I often use the blog for, as an online notebook).

  3. It is also easy to explain why most burials are from the LC or TC. This is because the sites were depopulated at the end of these periods and later activities did not disturb or move around dead people’s bones. If I understand you correctly you say that since most burials, due to issue with dating, fall into a 200 year period, this could mean that most of them are late in that span? Can that be supported? Would people invest that much into burials if everything was collapsing around them? However, the enormous scale of the deaths must have left traces of them somewhere, even if bones are not preserved well. “Anomalous” aggregations of artefacts that the dead ones brought with them into their resting place should have been noted by now even if the bones are not present.

    I can turn the argument around regarding the “sky burials”. I brought up the animal skin water container as an alternative and you dismissed it because we lack any evidence for it. Now, you say “the Maya must have been disposing of the dead in ways that we can’t account for”. It is the same kind of argument based on the lack of firm evidence. The difference here is that my speculation regarding the animal skin water container is non-important to my work (it only had relevance in our discussion), but surely the disposal of dead people must be an important issue if one believes almost all died at a site? Sure, animals may have eaten corpses that were not buried properly or the dead people were not given any gifts since the objects were needed among the living. These are plausible explanations for some sites, but for millions of people?

    Further, I am not an expert on plants but you seem to argue that “modern” plants are better than the ones the LC/TC Maya had. Maybe they are, but I do recall a Science documentary on Swedish TV a couple of years ago where biologists/agronomists were trying to find seeds from plants that were older than the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, i.e. before gene-modification of plants since modern plants have problem with the global warming (this would not affect your example from the 1930s of course, but I do know that not all plants and animals are domesticated in the “right” way that benefits their survival potential). The scientists argued that the older plants (pre-1960s) had better survival value (but gave less food per plant). So, how do we know how well the various plants the Maya grew tackled a drought? We can for sure not fall back on an argument that states that because modern plants cannot survive certain conditions this means that plants used more than a millennium ago could not survive.

  4. Johan,

    thank you for your reply. You ask whether there is proof that burials of the early dead from the first bout of drought could be dated to the late period of the Late Classic. Obviously not, and that is exactly my point. Since archaeological dating is only going to tell you Late Classic, or at best Late/Terminal Classic, you aren’t ever going to get the precise dating you are asking for. We can’t do anything about that; that is just the problem of the inherently equivocal nature of the archaeological record. You then ask whether the Maya, facing a terrible catastrophe would have invested much in tombs anyway, which I have to point out, is just you arguing against your own counter-argument to the drought hypothesis. If the Maya wouldn’t have invested much in tombs while everything was collapsing around them then your request to see evidence of plenty of burials dated to this period makes no sense. You say that the enormous scale of the deaths must have left some trace, but as I have already pointed out, the nature of the tropical environment would have destroyed everything perishable, and the burials of the earliest victims would just look like Late Classic tombs to archaeologists. What kind of “anomalous” artifacts would you expect to find for these drought deaths?

    As for the sky burial issue, I have to admit your reasoning here makes no sense to me at all. You suggest that because hauling water in hide containers is not a major part of your own research you don’t need to have any supporting evidence for this in order for this counter-argument to undermine my drought hypothesis. That makes absolutely no sense. Arguments and counter-arguments are both just propositions and all propositions are equal in terms of needing support. If there is absolutely no evidence for the use of hide water containers in the Maya world then this counter-argument to the drought hypothesis holds no weight as we have no reason to believe it is true. None at all. When I say the Maya must have disposed of their dead in ways we can’t account for, however, this is not a baseless proposition. It is a statement of fact that essentially all Maya archaeologists, including yourself, agree with. I quote you from your first post here: “Now, the remains of most people that have ever existed are not preserved. Most commoners of the Maya area, the majority of the population that presumably died, are underrepresented in the burial record even during periods without droughts.” This isn’t an argument, it is simply a statement of fact. Despite nearly a century of excavations in the Maya area we can’t account for the vast majority of the ancient population, no matter where we’ve looked. Clearly the Maya were disposing of their dead in some manner we haven’t found good evidence for yet.

    As for explaining the disappearance of millions of bodies from drought, I have already pointed out why we shouldn’t expect to find evidence of these. 1) We don’t find the majority of the Maya from any period anyway. 2) Bodies that weren’t buried wouldn’t preserve. 3) Bodies that were buried would mostly show up as either just Late Classic or Terminal Classic. As for why we don’t get more mass burials, that is also simple to account for. Digging any tomb was exorbitantly expensive for the ancient Maya, given how little soil there is. So digging any tomb that would allow for preservation requires digging into bedrock, and to do this for a mass group of bodies, especially when everyone in the society is starving, is not to be expected. And, even if the Maya burned the bodies, or disposed of them in any other way, we still wouldn’t expect to find their remains today, a thousand years later.

    Finally, as for the difference between modern and ancient crops, I simply pointed out the difference in case anyone would argue that the data I was presenting was for modern strains of maize as opposed to the ancient ones. I know they were different and I know that the modern strains are hardier and more productive in almost every way. I do not know the specifics in comparison with ancient Maya maize, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that ancient varieties were better adapted to drought conditions. If you know of any, I would love to see that evidence. Cheers,


  5. Stan,

    I must once again say that you continue to misrepresent what I say. By now it is quite obvious that this is your way of arguing. I have never said that the Maya “hauled” water in animal skin containers (as I understand it this means pull water out of a water source). I said it perhaps was used to carry water instead of in heavy ceramic vessels (if the distance was long).

    My argument makes no sense? This is another of your exaggerations that makes me uninterested in continuing this discussion beyond this reply. As I have said repeatedly, but it apparently misses the target each time, the animal skin container was brought up during our discussion, it is not part of my research. You have to keep things apart. I keep our discussion separate from my own research, they are not the same. My only point is that both arguments falls back on the lack of evidence. The lack of possible animal hide containers in the archaeological record is not hard to argue for. One might point out that ceramic vessels with water are being depicted in the iconographic record and not animal hide containers. Sure enough, but that is not evidence that they did not exist. But since this whole animal hide container discussion only is of relevance to our discussion, not my research, I simply do not care.

    You can, of course, make a case that most burials are unknown from other periods but if you claim that most LC burials are from the drought era, is not the supposed demographic increase an explanation here? If not, the demographic numbers are perhaps lower (but that would go against the number of housemounds, etc.)?

    Further, I did not write anomalous artefacts, I wrote anomalous aggregations of artefacts and I gave the explanation above. You also misunderstand me when you say that I argue against my own counterargument. Some of the elite burials at the end of the LC are quite elaborate and contains great wealth. Why would they invest that much into the burials if they experienced droughts? How is this a nonsensical question considering your argument that most burials from the LC are late/around the drought? If things do not make sense to you, perhaps you have misunderstood what I said.

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