Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 3 – Mayan site: Lamanai

We drove to pick up a boat to Lamanai, the beautiful Mayan site on a lake. On the trip up a river with jungle on either side, we stopped to see humming birds (nest on very tip of a branch over the river), Boat Billed Herons and a small croc. We passed a couple of Mennonites fishing, who nodded, but weren’t keen on attention.

First thing we did was trek up to the old sugar mill behind the site, a British effort with a huge iron steam engine, still in place, being strangled by vines. The bricks came as ballast in ships from London and the iron parts from New Orleans. The enterprise was a failure but you’ve got to admire the reach and bravado of these hardy entrepreneurs. ‘Abroad’ is strictly for holidays these days and there’s something to be said about Britain’s loss of ambition. Chris, our English guide, originally from the Midlands, has set up home with his wife and child in Belize and is making a go of replanting part of the rainforest. In addition to be good humoured, he was brimming with knowledge and devoted to conservation.

And so to Lamaiai. This was what I was most looking forward to, the archaeology. This site was occupied for 3000 years until the 16th century and has more than 700 mapped structures. Archaeologists moved from foot to plane and now to infra-red from satellites to plot these sites. The limestone buildings leech limestone into the surrounding vegetation which creates different intensities from the leaves. These allow you to use satellite images to find new sites.

Climbing that first Mayan pyramid was thrilling –the Mask temple, a 6th century structure with stucco masks on both sides, representing the ruler/sun God Kinich Ahua. The structure has several smaller temples entombed in the structure going back to around 100 BC – so it has a 600 year provenance!

Three Mennonnite girls were climbing the second pyramid with us and were shy and dressed in 50s looking dresses below the knee, hats, hair nets and nylon pop socks with sensible shoes. We also saw a family, who looked for all the world like the Waltons, stroll through the ruins. They are a constant presence in Belize – but more of them later.

Then round past the ancient dock to the High Temple or El Castillo, 115 feet high, dating back to 100 BC. The view from the top across the forest and lake is stunning and we could hear the howler monkeys roar. Then through the ballcourt and residential buildings and down to the museum, with some fine pots, stelae and eccentric flints. This site lasted longer than most for the Maya due to its remote location and supply of water from the lake.

Mayan Collapse

A good account of the Mayan decline is in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond. Diamond uses the collapse of the Maya as a primary example of his multiple-cause theory and devotes an entire chapter in his book to this case. Unlike the other cases in his book, he feels that the evidence is very strong and the society that collapsed was large. Four of his five causes were at work; 1) Environmental damage (deforestation and erosion), 2) Climate change (droughts), 3) Hostilities (internecine warfare), 4) Political/cultural fixity (Rulers short-termism). His fifth criterion is ceasing to trade but he puts less emphasis on this with the Maya.

1) Environmental damage (deforestation and erosion), This is a seasonal tropical forest with a dry season and unpredictability on rainfall, along with regular hurricanes. As maize was the staple food, swidden agriculture (slash and burn) meant rapid deforestation and erosion from hillsides. David Webster showed that in the 8th century the sediment on valley floors indicated severe erosion from deforestation, which in turn was used as fuel and for burning limestone to create lime for plaster. The creation of the cities themselves seemed to an act of self-destruction. They had no pack animals for transporting food or ploughing fields, no metal, couldn’t store food for more than a year in their humid climate. Maize, moreover, has considerably less protein than wheat or barley.

2) Climate change (droughts). The lowland Maya in the Yucatan had cenotes and access to water but in the karst country in the highlands they had to build plaster-lined reservoirs. At Tikal, this could only support 10.000 for 18 months, making them vulnerable to drought. Recorded droughts, as measured by sediment analysis of oxygen isotopes, show droughts in 600 AD, 760 AD (2 yrs), 810-820 AD (10 years) and 910 AD (6 yrs).

3) Hostilities (internecine warfare). Warfare was endemic and brutal, with religious and ruling class motives behind some truly brutal practices, such as pulling out fingernails and teeth, cutting off lips, cutting off the lower jaw and trussing captives up in a ball and throwing them down the stairs of temples. This was limited to city state like disputes as they couldn’t transport food far enough for distant campaigns.

4) Political/cultural fixity (Rulers short-termism). With leaders who promised rain and the continuation of prosperity through blood letting, droughts took away their legitimacy. The last monument at Tikal was dated 869 AD. Their short-termism meant not building relevant infrastructure or sustainable agriculture or sustainable agriculture or innovation.

When Cortez arrived in 1524/25 there were only 30,000 and he could barely find enough villages to obtain food. Diamond sees parallels in the US where the rich elite are doing all they can to preserve their own lifestyles at the possible expense of a sustainable future.

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