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marți, 28 august 2012

Drought Lessons From Chichén Itzá

SANTA FE — With drought draped across all of New Mexico and much of the United States to our east and west, it’s an interesting time to think about the prehistoric Mayan city of Chichén Itzá.

Its fate is a reminder that drought isn’t simply something climate does to us. Drought’s effects are defined in large part by how resilient we are in response.

I spent much of last week sorting through squabbles over how to parcel out the last drips of water in the Rio Grande, which has seen less than half its normal flow through Albuquerque this year. Then Friday, I drove up to Santa Fe to sit down with archaeologist Jerry Sabloff to talk about the Maya.

The easy version of the story, bolstered by recent research strengthening our understanding of prehistoric climate, is of the great Mayan civilization of Central America hammered by drought and collapsing 1,200 years ago. As we watch our own society’s struggles with drought, the Mayan history seems like it could be instructive. But we need to start the conversation by acknowledging that drought did not end the Mayan civilization, according to Sabloff.

“Ten million Maya speakers today would think that’s pretty ludicrous,” Sabloff said.

Bad droughts did sweep across the central Maya lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula, and they did make life harder for people in the great city-states that had grown up there over millenniums. In the eighth century, what we have come to call the “Classic Maya” culture of the central Yucatan lowlands disappeared. But the central lowland Maya had weathered dry spells before.

“There were lots of droughts,” Sabloff said. “The Maya had successfully adapted to those circumstances,” he said.

And while the central lowland city-states “collapsed” during the eighth century drought, some Mayan cities, like the great empire based at Chichén Itzá, near the coast in the northern Yucatan, not only survived, but thrived.

Sabloff, an archaeologist whose 40-plus-year career has taken him from the jungles of the Yucatan through Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of New Mexico and now to the intellectually eclectic Santa Fe Institute, published a paper last week trying to sort out the complexity. But really, he said in an interview, using the study of past societies to understand how to bring more resiliency to our own requires not so much sorting out the complexity as embracing it.

Writing with Arizona State University’s B.L. Turner in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sabloff pointed out two salient facts about the “collapse” of the Classic lowland Maya culture. First: “A large proportion of the population of the Lowlands simply disappeared.” Second: “There is little evidence for large-scale famine and death at the time of this abandonment.”

For the folks living there at the time, things just didn’t seem to be working out, so they seem to have pulled up stakes and moved.

Part of the problem, according to Sabloff, seems to have been what we today might call “macroeconomics.” The lowland Maya communities lay along inland trading routes, and part of their wealth came from commerce. When trading patterns shifted to the coast, their economies suffered. To put the situation in modern terms, they no longer had the necessary wealth to keep up their infrastructure.

Along with that, Sabloff and Turner argue, they faced environmental problems.

Over time, through deforestation and intensive farming practices, the lowland Maya damaged the landscape on which they depended for food. And part of the problem came from the ruling elites. They claimed connections to the gods, and in return for the wealth showered on them, “they were expected to provide material, spiritual, and ideological security.”

Drought showed how hollow that promise had become, and the peasants and “artisan-craftsmen” who made up the backbone of the central Mayan communities bailed out, moving “to find better economic opportunities elsewhere in the Maya area.”

One such place seems to have been Chichén Itzá, the city to the north, situated near the coastal trading routes and with the necessary water management infrastructure to weather the drought. Eighth century Chichén Itzá had the resiliency the central Maya lowland city-states lacked.

What lessons might one take from this?

Watching last week’s Rio Grande squabbles, it seems the steps we have taken to manage our water have held up well in the short term.

Water imported from the Colorado River Basin since the 1970s via the San Juan-Chama project to augment the Rio Grande’s flow has proved decisive this year. Without it, Albuquerque’s groundwater overpumping would be continuing unabated and the Rio Grande itself would very likely be dry through Albuquerque.

But that’s in the short term. The reservoirs upstream are empty, and another dry year in 2012-13 could really test our resilience. This is where Sabloff and the Maya come in.

Sabloff thinks we need to look across the Southwest and ask serious questions about where we’re headed, given our vulnerability to drought and a changing climate. “Are you going to allow unfettered growth?” he asked. How resilient do we want to be? And what sort of steps are we willing to take to get there?


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