Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Maya Experience

I just recently had the joy of visiting the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, taking two weeks to travel around some well-known wonders of the world as well as some lesser-known hidden gems. Throughout my travels, I was surrounded by a rich history of Maya culture - a civilisation which has intrigued me since my early ventures into the world of sustainability.

As a student, I was always left wondering about the mystery of the collapse of the 'Classic Maya Civilisation'. The culture bloomed around the years of 200AD - 900AD, where the Mayans settled themselves as early masters of astronomy, mathematics and architecture. Did you know the Maya developed the concept of 'zero'... such a basic principle which underpins our own society. Even the Romans didn't think of that one!

Chichen Itza Pyramid of Kukulkan - an architectural marvel
In terms of architecture, the Maya built their temples with state of the art acoustics in mind. Not only with amplification of sound across unimaginable distances, but also with the ability to replicate the sound of the Quetzal Bird which was sacred to the Maya. Don't believe me, try clapping your hands at the foot of Chichen Itza's Pyramid of Kukulkan.

But Chichen Itza was only the (rather touristy) cherry on top of the cake. The deeper into the jungle you go, the more marvels you see. The site of Palenque, my personal favourite, has barely even been excavated from within the jungle's hold, and yet you can still sense how far the Mayans had come by this point. A civilisation at it's peak.

But what comes up must come down? Or so that is what my previous studies of the Maya had taught me...
Uxmal - Chaac rain god

Indeed the Maya then went through a heavy decline. The reason(s) for this have yet to be fully concluded but the population was growing at an alarming rate and resource use was increasing alongside. Here follows humanity's self-destructive nature... Deforestation is estimated to have played an important role in the civilisation's demise. As cities grew and expanded, competition and warfare ignited over resources. Jared Diamond in 'Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail and Succeed' provides an interesting framework for collapse of great societies, including the Maya, noting the impacts of environmental damage, climate change (especially a lack of water), internal hostilities and political / cultural factors.

I could go into detail into the possible causes of this decline, however this would contradict one of the most important lessons I learnt. While I went to Mexico armed with this pre-meditated idea of the 'Mayan Collapse', I very soon realised that 'collapse' is not the right word... because collapse implies total failure. And yet the Maya culture and the Maya people are still very evidently present, with around 6 million living in Central America. There are around 30 Maya dialects still spoken, traditional native religions are still practiced, as well as various traditions (especially in weaving and textiles).

Had I not gone to Mexico, I would have written a lessons learnt story about a powerful civilisation destroyed by a lack of resilience, but I now feel this would be an injustice to this society. Obviously, there is still something to be understood from the decline of this prominent society, and this is something which I will touch on at a later date with examples of other great civilisations. For the moment though, I would prefer to focus on the fact that this culture, although significantly diminished, has survived the odds.

While it is easy to focus on the decline, I think there is a lot to be said for adaptability to changing political and cultural environments, whether from the Spanish Conquest or the current tourist trade.  And while we no longer live in a world where single civilisations grow independent of others (and where world cultures are more often than not integrated into one another) there's also a lot to learn from the innovation which this society was founded on.

Adaptability, resilience and innovation. I will touch on these subjects in relation to current civilisations at a later date. In the meantime... Dios bo'otik.

Palenque view from high on up - worth the climb!