Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Mayan tablet does not predict end of the world in 2012

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The Guardian has yet more on the current obsession on the ancient wisdom of the Maya. And just because I am recently returned from the ruins myself, I could not resist the opportunity to comment.

The Observatory

Mayan Observatory at Chichen Itza – my photo on flickr

This is the Observatory at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Mayan astronomy was very advanced and accurate, based on well developed mathematics and careful observations – all without lenses or telescopes. Their calendar was based on their observations of the skies and they knew all about the length of the year and when the solstices and equinoxes occurred. Though since they were pretty close to the tropics, and the length of day actually doesn’t vary very much, I am not at all sure that was all that important. They also knew about wheels – in fact their calendar was a series of geared wheels one within another. The fact that one tablet or one wheel ran out of space around December 2012 is of no significance since they thought that time was not linear (as we do, given our obsession with digital time pieces) but a series of nested, repetitive cycles.

Quite why some people now think the Maya were wiser than we are and able to predict the future baffles me – since the great Mayan civilization collapsed. Much like the other great civilizations. Not because of the invasion of the conquistadores, but because of the contradictions of their belief systems and reality. Chichen Itza was a great city where the Toletcs and Maya lived for hundreds of years, building massive monuments like the famous “pyramid” (which actually is not at all like the Egyptian pyramids).


The Mayan “Castillo” at Chichen Itza my photo on flickr

This was actually covered in stucco. The reconstruction has not attempted to reproduce that but it does contain a hint of why the city was abandoned. There were a series of disastrous droughts. The Yucatan has no surface water, but relies on a  network of underground rivers accessible by “cenotes” – natural wells caused by the tree roots penetrating the roof of the limestone caves where the rivers run. When the tree dies, a hole is left in the roof of the cave, and many such roofs collapse over time. The Maya worshipped a god of the waters – including the use of self mutilation and – more famously – human sacrifices. They also dropped people into cenotes – which, given that they depended on the underground river for drinking water, suggests they did not know nearly enough about basic hygiene.

The cause of the drought is the subject of much archaelogical speculation. I use that word since one of the most effective things the Spanish missionaries did was rid the world of Mayan knowledge. All but three of their books were destroyed. It seems likely that the concentration of people on a dry plain was unsustainable agriculturally. Clearing the forest for food crops would have had some impact on local climate. But possibly more important was the “need” for slaked limestone to make stucco. This meant the demand for fuel wood was such that the forest cover was lost much more rapidly.

The elites of the Maya would have been driven to explain why there was a drought and why the harvests were failing – and of course the most likely reason in their world view was that the Gods were angry and required even greater sacrifices and more monuments with even more  stucco decorations. Eventually, the common people simply stopped listening and sacrificing and left the city in search of an easier life where no one was expected to squeeze  their babies’ heads into odd shapes, cut themselves or work all day building stone houses for priests and chiefs while they lived in thatched huts. The stone houses, by the way, were built and decorated on the outside with bas reliefs, but the workers had no steel or bronze tools.

The Maya are in fact still there. Many are trying to preserve the simple life they developed after they abandoned the city in the face of growing international tourism.

The parallels with out own society seem to me to be much more important than speculating about the Mayan’s belief systems. Clearly the Maya did not predict the collapse of their civilization – any more than the Easter Islanders did. It does seem that people have a hard time accepting that there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem on which we all depend. Obviously, commentators like Harvey Enchin don’t understand that either. Despite the paper he writes for having major stories about the inevitability of increasingly rapid and severe climate change, he still thinks the economy and conventional employment is more important than long term survival of the species. Just like the elites of the ancient Maya, he demands more sacrifices – more wealth for the 1% – more of what has already demonstrably failed. More oil, more pipelines, more carbon emissions. That is the only way he can see of creating more jobs. The idea that our society is already consuming more of the planets resources than it can replace does not enter into his thought system.

We live on a finite planet. We consume what that planet provides – and we take very little care of the resources we have. If all the world’s people lived the way we do, we would need three planets. Exponential growth on a finite planet cannot continue indefinitely. Our measure of success – GDP – is woefully inadequate since it does not measure the value of clean air, clean water or the ability to grow food. Enchin and his ilk fail to understand that the economy depends on the environment not the other way around.

The world will not end – at least not until the sun burns out and collapses. Long before then, human society as it is currently operating will have collapsed. We could change the date of that collapse, if we got serious about abandoning fossil fuels. After all, the planet gets far more energy from the sun every day than we need  for centuries of power use. We have hardly made any serious progress yet – and the people who make money from coal and oil are determined that we don’t. And in Canada they have done a remarkably effective job in capturing what we fondly believe is a democratically elected government.

Our elite is as misguided and deluded as the Mayan. They did not predict the end of their own civilization let alone the world – or of they did they failed to act in way that ensured their own survival. We do not need to wonder about their calendar – any more than the fact that all our calendars end on December 31 is of any significance. We do need to learn the lesson about carrying capacity of ecosystems. That is what we depend on for our life. The planet will continue long after it has shrugged off what is currently a nasty disease – humanity. We do have the ability to change that. What we seem to lack is the will.

UPDATE December 31, 2011

The Vancouver Sun published an interesting article today by an archeologist who talks about what the ancient Maya did predict – far beyond 2012. And why they definitely did NOT think the world would end.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 1, 2011 at 9:52 am

3 Responses

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  1. Great post, Stephen. I’m in full agreement. Based on what you’ve written here, I expect you’re already a Jared Diamond fan. If not, check out Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. It’s a great read.

    Jonathon Narvey

    December 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

  2. Excellent post. In a way you cn sympathise with the Maya more than us: they believed history was cyclic so they would find it hard to understand the idea that their culture woud be destroyed by the destruction of their environment: we know what we’re doing and still do it…

    Andy in Germany

    December 2, 2011 at 7:01 am

  3. Welcome back, Stephen..great post….reminds me of the time years ago when a preacher was going on and on about the destruction of the Roman Empire because of their mad fornication. I just said the Empire died but the Romans are alive and well and doing it with gusto…(and that was before Berlusconi became a household name)

    Red frog

    December 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm

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