Alberts latest article was a tour de force of the classic view of Mayan collapses, as it has been perpetuated in classic literature. The general idea is that the large downfalls in the Mayan empires would have been caused by large distant eruptions.
This is of course an unfair summing up of Alberts quite more complex reasoning. But, the gist is still there.
For a few years I have had a problem with that particular history writing. My first contention was that there is no need to go looking for large eruptions afar when Guatemala itself is amply filled with large volcanoes and calderas. My second contention is that the Mayan civilization never had the civilization-spanning downfalls portrayed in almost all literature.
Now I can hear a lot of people screaming at me, but wait a bit and I will explain further.
A little more than a year ago I armed myself with my minor in archaeology and my knowledge in volcanology and mounted an expedition on my own to track down the volcanic culprit. As I went full on Indiana Jones I had the help of temple-guards, the fabulous Mayan museum of Museo Popol Vuh, and my dear wife Doctor Carmen Morataya.
It all turned into the shortest scientific expedition of all time, and me and my wife meandered away and sat down in the grass of Kaminaljuyu to watch a combination of a Mayan religious ceremony against a backdrop of an ash cloud belching out of Pacaya.
It was all quite romantic and uplifting, especially after the scientific anti-climax. But, now it is time for your Rayban-wearing faux Indiana Jones to get down to writing about what he found that cut his sciencing down to roughly 30 minutes.
The archaeological view
Archaeology as a discipline can be cooked down into being the art of following water, climate, food, technology, religion and ruling douche-bags throughout a civilization. Preferably it should all be clearly stratigraphic, including the water.
First of all, the timescale of the Mayan civilization is daunting. Between 8000 BC and 1500 AD we find all of the development of the human civilization, and all of the large empires are just like twinkling lights flashing in the endless night compared to the Mayans. It is by far the longest lasting and most stable civilization that humans have constructed to date, and it is almost preposterous to think that any of todays empires will ever outlive the Mayan civilization.
Between 8000 and 2000 BC we have the archaic period where they developed farming, villages and the city concept. They learned to tame the waters to increase harvests. It is during this period that the famously protein-rich Guatemalan food came into existence with an abundance of maize, veggies, beans, meat and fish.
After that we have the pre-classic period where writing was developed that lasted from 2000BC to 250 AD. The classic period lasted from 250 to 950 AD and the post-classic from 950 AD to the Spanish occupation.
Guatemala City is known as the City of Eternal Spring, and basically it has the perfect weather. Always. That being said, there is a phrase that is true about Guatemala; “If you do not like the climate, walk 500 meters”. Guatemala has roughly 300 different climate zones, ranging all the way from the type of humid heat that can only be found where a tropical rainforest intersects with the Pacific Ocean (a climate only loved by sun-soaking Swedes) to alpine coniferous forests at the snowlines of mountains, via dessert terrain.
The climatological golden zone in Guatemala is and has always been the volcanic highlands with warm days and cool nights. There is also enough rain to cause pretty much your shoes to sprout buds and leaves if left unattended.
To the west you have a drier coastal plain ripe with huge sugar-cane fields that rapidly turn into a coastal rainforest. To the east you have true rainforests and wetlands going towards the coast against the Atlantic.
This means that there will always be a nearby favourable climate zone if your own for some reason changes to be inhospitable. This was most likely what happened in the South-east and East-central parts around 900 AD. The land warmed and dried out, and the population moved into the fertile highlands.
And here comes a hint, during the large downfalls of the Mayan civilization only parts where affected, the rest continued with business as usual, or even became re-invigorated.
Let me further expound upon the subject, Guatemala and its Mayan fore-runners is divided into 3 major climatological areas. And the divisions are quite brutal. So, the Mayan civilization was always divided into 3 distinct parts. Next thing to realize is that the Mayan civilization is a highland civilization, so much so that genetic differences has come into existence in the genome. That is why Guatemalans tend to be short and stocky, since that is the favoured body form at high altitude. Even today the bulk of all Guatemalans live at an altitude spanning from 1200 meters up to 3400 meters.
But, alas, westerners like coasts, so we interpret the coastal and plains cities as the main parts when studying the Mayan civilization. A side-note here is that the pyramidal shape of the temples most likely originate from the shape of the stratovolcanoes in the highlands. And that is why we do not see them built as high in the highlands. Why build fakes when you have the originals to revere?
The volcanological view
Volcanologists are also enamoured with stratigraphic layers. Especially if they can find a layer X that terminates culture Y. Then you can analyse the ash of layer X and track it to volcano P that is known to emit ash X during eruptions. All are happy, and papers are written aplenty.
So, here was my initial deal with going to Kaminaljuyu, to find layer X, get an ash sample, test it, and track volcano P.
This probably seems to be totally redundant since everyone “knows” that the Mayan societal declines were caused by distal eruptions. Well, here is my deal. Nobody has ever bothered to check for layer X, nor taken an ash sample of it.
So, as I donned my Raybans to go Indiana Jonesing, it was with the trepidation of being on the verge of doing a Leakey discovery. I was about to rewrite the volcanic history of the Mayan civilization. As mentioned, I was convinced I would find a layer with ash from a large Guatemalan volcano, most likely Amatitlán.
Before we drove the 500 meters from home to Kaminaljuyu my dear wife lathered me up in a thick layer of sunscreen. She is completely convinced that I and every other Swede are vampires that will perish in direct sunlight. This lathering normally comes with quite a bit of protestations on my part. But, alas, my wife somehow always wins these debates since I love her.
I had been told that there was even a ready dug pit showing the stratigraphic layers of the history of Kaminjuyu, and that it would perhaps be possible to get a sample of that layer at another site on the grounds of Kaminaljuyu.
As we came to the hole in the ground I looked perplexed down and did not understand a thing. Still not understanding a thing I went and looked down at the temple in its dig site, and then we went and sat down in the grass to look at Mayan priests smoking cigars in-front of the backdrop of the equally smoking Pacaya.
I still did not get it. I had found nothing. No ash-layer. No interruption of habitation. If there had been a local eruption there would have been an ash-layer, and if it was a distal eruption there would have been habitation interruption. So, no volcano to blame. At all.
When I get stumped by a conundrum I have always found that books are a good place to start. So, I started to read massively on Mayan history. And discovered that at most one of the 3 Mayan regions had been affected, and that it had only happened once.
Otherwise it seemed that the destruction had been on City or region level. As one part got destroyed others thrived. At no time had there been a civilization wide discontinuity.
Disproving a theory is as much a part of science as proving a theory, but you do not become famous by it. So, no Leakeyfication of me for this.
Tying up the ends
Kaminaljuyu came to an end due to lack of water. During it’s long time as one of the major Mayan cities it had been depending on Lake Miraflor (real Mayan name is unknown). That lake silted up and become a swamp before the water that fed it disappeared during an earthquake. The population of about 100 000 meandered away to find a climate spot more amenable with a good supply of water.
During the 9500 years that the Mayan civilization existed city after city was crushed in natural disasters in the form of large earthquakes. Kaminaljuyu itself was one of the longest existing cities in the world, and still it was most likely rebuilt about every 70 years.
Even after the Spanish occupation they have gone through at least 3 different capital cities with Guatemala City (on top of Kaminaljuyu) having been destroyed twice (1918 and 1976). And in here lies the deal, you can cherry-pick pretty much any year to have a societal downfall from the Mayan cities, because you will inevitably find a city that crumbled around that year and was abandoned.
The downfall of the eastern parts of the Mayan civilization around the year 900 AD comes during the start of a global heatwave. And the same happened during the 250 AD low-point in the east during another global heatwave. These heatwaves did not affect the central highland parts of the Mayan empire, nor did it affect the western parts due to the cold Humboldt-current.
Here is the deal, volcanic eruptions if large and happening in statistical gluttony, will lower the temperature, and lack of volcanic eruptions increase global temperature. So, having a global heatwave is indicative of no volcano at all being the cause of the societal decline in the eastern lowlands of the Mayan civilization. In other words, there was no volcanic eruption causing anything at that time.
As the weather got colder the lowlands was re-habitated, a trend that was interrupted as something even deadlier than the climate, volcanoes and earthquakes happened. The Spaniards and their measles.