Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Maya Kings

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

For our latest Members' Post, it's a real pleasure to welcome Lisa Lucero, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. Lisa has been conducting archaeology projects in Belize for almost 30 years, where she focuses on the emergence and demise of political power, ritual and water management among the Classic Maya. Her most recent project involves exploring collapsed sinkholes fed by groundwater for evidence of ancient Maya offerings and their climate and landscape histories.

I’m walking through the humid tropical jungles of Belize, a small country in Central America where many more people lived in the past than today. As usual, I am not alone. I never go into the jungle without my Maya field assistants. Even with a GPS unit and compass, one can get lost quickly. The jungle is their backyard, and they know everything about it; their knowledge of wild fruits, berries, medicinal plants, building materials — it’s truly astounding. They also help me conduct my archaeology research — understanding how the ancient Maya sustainably lived for thousands of years in the face of two intersecting challenges: seasonal drought, and periods of climate instability. Too much or not enough rain was a constant, either short- or long-term, and yet the Maya persevered in the southern Maya lowlands (SML) of present day Belize, northern Guatemala, and southeastern Mexico.

Belize research crew shot, June 2017
(Lisa Lucero in purple shirt).
Photo taken by project drone.

How did the Maya accomplish this? My research attempts to address this question because I know (not believe) that there are lessons we can learn from the Classic Maya (c. 250-850 CE) that are relevant today. Let me explain.

As an archaeologist, my role is to explore how our ancestors lived. When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I was interested in the emergence of hierarchical political systems. How did the earliest leaders get others to hand over the fruits of their labor? Many years and several publications later, what emerged was this crucial fact: climate change matters. No matter where or when in the world, climate change has played a significant role in shaping political histories. And it still does. I illustrate this point with a brief narrative on how Classic Maya kings arose and fell, and how the rest of the population adapted — and still do, as the millions of Maya currently living attest.

A fateful dependency

The setting. While the jungle may seem homogenous, it is not. The karstic topography gave rise to high biodiversity and a mosaic of dispersed resources, including fertile soils. This resulted in scattered farmsteads where the majority of Maya lived, as well as hundreds of urban centers with varying power based on agricultural surplus and water. While there was an abundance of rainfall during the annual seven-month rainy season, much of it percolated through the porous limestone bedrock. Surface water was thus relatively limited. Everything, thus, was rainfall dependent. Key factors so far: noticeable seasonality, high biodiversity, dispersed pockets of fertile soils, rainfall dependency.

Map of Maya area
Image generated by L J Lucero © 2018

It is this vital reliance on rainfall that is key to understanding the Classic Maya — their cosmology, agricultural schedules and strategies, livelihood, political power, and so on. The largest urban centers and concomitant support population and the most powerful kings emerged in areas with plentiful agricultural land, but without surface water such as lakes and rivers: Tikal and Naranjo in Guatemala, Calakmul in Mexico, Caracol in Belize, to name a few powerhouses. But, you might be asking, if the majority of Maya lived scattered throughout the landscape, how did kings get farmers to contribute their labor, goods and services? Such efforts resulted in what most people think about when the topic of the Classic Maya comes up — urban centers with palaces, temples, ornate tombs, massive open plazas, ballcourts, elaborate hieroglyphs, inscribed stone monuments, beautifully painted ceramics, carved jade, shaped obsidian, etc. The answer: water. More specifically, artificial reservoir systems that increasingly became interwoven not only with center design, but with political power.

During the agricultural intensive periods of the rainy season, farmers worked in their fields. In the dry season in areas without much surface water, they congregated at centers for drinking water. In exchange for access to water, Maya commoners/farmers maintained royal buildings and lifestyle; they also participated in public events and ceremonies sponsored by kings, met up with friends, bartered goods at markets, and so on.

This system was in place for nearly a thousand years in the southern Maya lowlands, beginning c. 100 BCE until c. 850 CE. By 900 CE kings had disappeared. There are two parts to address how their political systems ‘collapsed’: path dependency; and several prolonged droughts. ‘Path dependency’ basically is putting all your eggs in one basket; as financial advisors tell us: diversify, diversify. Maya kings relied on reservoirs to draw in their subjects who, in turn, funded the political economy. Thus, if reservoirs failed, so too did kings.

The end of power

Analysis of annual rings of speleothems (stalactites or stalagmites) from caves in the Maya area shows that several multiyear droughts struck the Maya area between 800 and 900 CE. They impacted everyone. Reservoirs dried up and, eventually, people abandoned urban centers and kings. While a minority remained in the interior southern Maya lowlands, former home to the largest and most powerful centers, most emigrated in all directions in search of water and other resources to take care of their families. They migrated along rivers, lakes and coasts. Maritime trade flourished, as did northern lowland centers. The northern lowlands, with thinner soils, make up most of the Yucatán Peninsula, which also is at a lower elevation; that latter feature exposes lots of accessible water in the form of over 7,000 cenotes or collapsed sinkholes that are fed by groundwater.

The southern Maya lowland centers were abandoned for good; hundreds of them. Kings lost power because they relied on reservoirs as the linchpin to draw in subjects. When reservoir levels dropped in the face of the multiple prolonged droughts, kings failed in upholding their duty to provide dry season water. Their subjects left. Perhaps if the kings had diversified their political portfolio…

Aerial shot of Tikal, Guatemala.
Photo by L. J. Lucero © 2018

So, what are the lessons? First, we can’t continue with things as usual if we want to substantially address issues wrought by our changing climate; this includes not expecting new technology alone to save the day; and second, life-changing adaptations are called for — for the sakes of our families.


Find out more

More information on Lisa’s research publications is provided at her University of Illinois webpage, including open access journal articles such as a 2011 paper, Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management and another excellent article Lisa wrote on the University of Illinois anthropology blog, Exploring Maya life.

You can find out more about Lisa’s and colleagues’ research at the website of the Valley of Peace Archaeology project. 

 

 

 

Near / Far

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

It's a great pleasure to share visual artist Rebecca Chesney's first post for ClimateCultures. Rebecca -- whose work is informed by her research into the protection of the environment, conversations with scientists and a desire to make work specific to chosen locations -- describes her experiences of environmental change in California while on a residency there and shares some of the images she produced.

I am a visual artist based in Preston, Lancashire. My interests lie in how we perceive the landscape: how we romanticise and translate our rural and urban surroundings; how we define, describe and categorise nature. I look at how politics, land ownership, management and commercial value all influence the environment we live in. Air pollution, water quality, invasive plant species, weeds, bees and weather are all subjects my work has dealt with previously, with the results taking the form of installations, interventions, drawings, maps and walks.

In 2016 I was invited to attend a residency at Montalvo in California. At that time California was experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record. Having just finished a winter here where storms Desmond, Eva and Frank had caused extensive flooding in Lancashire and Cumbria, I was interested in looking at extreme weather episodes and learning more about how climate change is affecting different geographical sites.

Split into two trips, my first visit in September 2016 was five years into the drought.

Bark beetle attack

Situated an hour south of San Francisco, Montalvo sits on a hillside surrounded by redwoods and oaks. The river running through the site had long since run dry; the warm air, sweet with the smell of the gigantic redwoods, was full of dust. My visit coincided with the run up to the presidential election, which became a frequent topic of discussion amongst the staff, other residents and locals alike with the majority agitated, nervous and deeply concerned about what the future might hold.

Dry river beds, reservoirs at historically low levels and the outbreak of wildfires nearby all revealed the extent of the drought, but it was the sheer number of dead trees on the hillsides in Yosemite National Park that I found completely overwhelming. I saw thousands and thousands of dead trees. The continued drought and subsequent increase of bark beetle attack had resulted in huge losses: the US Forest Service estimated a loss of 66 million trees in the Sierra Nevada in 2016, with the most vulnerable species being Ponderosa Pine, Incense-cedar, Sugar Pine and White Fir Trees.

Dead trees in Yosemite National Park, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

During my travels, I started to make drawings in my sketchbook of the exit holes of the bark beetles found on dead branches and tree trunks. I was drawn to the random patterns made of tiny holes, singly meaningless, but collectively devastating. And with these drawings I embroidered fabric with the patterns of dots, each individual mark taking time to create.

Near, embroidered cotton material.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

Returning from Yosemite National Park my journey took me through the vast agricultural Central Valley. The nation’s leading producer of almonds, avocados, broccoli, grapes, peppers and many other crops, this highly managed area is in stark contrast to the native forests of the mountains. Almonds are California’s most lucrative exported agricultural product: jobs and livelihoods depend on their success. However, almonds alone use approximately 10% of California’s total water supply. It was not difficult to see that thirsty crops in a time of drought can present difficult dilemmas and make us question our priorities.

Central Valley, California
Photograph: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
www.rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

The time between my first and second visit to California brought many changes. On my return in spring 2017 Trump, elected and sworn in as President since my first trip, continued to be the main focus of intense discussion and deep concern: he had already withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. The drought had been declared over, with above average rainfall and storms over the winter months resulting in numerous landslides and local road closures around Montalvo. Further south, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 was damaged beyond repair, with the extreme rainfall causing it to crack and sink on the shifting mountainside. With no option but demolition it is expected to take over a year to replace, and with no detour available it leaves communities and businesses cut off and isolated.

During my second trip I was invited to meet Ramakrishna Nemani, a senior earth scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Professor Eric Lambin at Stanford University. Nemani’s research uses satellite and climate data to produce ecological nowcasts and forecasts, while Lambin’s research is looking at land use change using GIS, remote sensing and socio-economic data. Providing an insight into these complex subjects, both meetings helped me understand the complex layering of issues involved and the need for balance within ecosystems.

Sudden Oak Death

I was also able to attend a Sudden Oak Death bioblitz workshop with Matteo Garbelotto from UC Berkeley. Caused by the microscopic pathogen Phytophthora ramorumSudden Oak Death (SOD) is an exotic disease introduced from an unknown region of the world into California 20 – 25 years ago. During the workshop I learned how to ID the disease and was asked to collect leaves from Californian Bay Laurel trees. Although carriers of the disease, Bay Laurels don’t die of SOD; however they infect surrounding oak trees that do die from the disease. I enjoyed being involved in the bioblitz and learned a lot about the complicated relationships between humans and the environment and the consequences of tiny imbalances in nature.

Continuing on from my sketches and embroideries about tree loss in the Sierra Nevada, I used data supplied by NASA satellites to produce a series of prints. Showing tree losses caused by the drought, bark beetle attack and wildfires in the last four years, the resulting images look like maps of swarms: intense and dark in places, sparse in other areas. Where the embroideries (Near) show individual minute dots, the prints (Far) reveal kilometre upon kilometre of dead trees visible via satellite.

Far, print derived from Nasa satellite imagery of tree loss in Sierra Nevada.
Artist: Rebecca Chesney © 2018
rebeccachesney.com (click image to link)

The small made large

Now back in Lancashire, I have had time to reflect on what I learned from my trip to California. Although different in so many ways, both regions are similar in facing increased pressure from the changing climate.

I saw how even the slightest shift in the balance of nature can have a huge impact on the health of ecosystems: seemingly minute actions we make have consequences. I saw how the economics of land influence decision-making and often take priority over the conservation of natural heritage. And the political uncertainty and upheaval added a new dimension from which to experience the situation. This amazing opportunity to visit some incredible places and meet world-leading experts all contributed to a fascinating trip that will continue to influence me and my work into the future.


Find out more

Rebecca’s images of Near / Far have been published in Uniformannual Twentyeighteen, available from Uniformbooks124 pages with contributions from 24 writers, artists and researchers.

Rebecca’s trip was supported by Arts Council England and Lancaster Arts, and you can find more of her work at rebeccachesney.com 

You can explore the work of the Montalvo Arts Center at their site.

The problems and management of Sudden Oak Death in California are described at the site of the California Oak Mortality Task Force. And the Firewise Madera County site has a well-referenced article on the dangers of Bark Beetle attack on the state’s trees.

You can explore the ecological forecasting (and nowcasting) work of NASA’s Ames Research Center at their Ecocast site.

Want to know more about ‘bioblitz’? Have a look at the European Citizen Science Association’s Bioblitz Group and the UK’s National Bioblitz Network.

Rebecca mentions Eric Lambin’s research; his 2012 book An Ecology of Happiness looks like an interesting read.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #8

— approx reading time: 8 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome science historian and writer Sarah Dry to the ClimateCultures blog and her contribution to A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Sarah's personal selection and the images she has chosen to illutstrate her objects strike a particular chord with the former astronomy student in me; and these three objects speak of the gap between seeing and feeling.

Looking was its own end – ‘Cloud forms that have been’

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a Scottish astronomer who travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. He was an obsessive, spending long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera.

The photograph reproduced below (left) is one of 144 photographs of clouds taken by Piazzi Smyth in his retirement, from the window of his home near Ripon, North Yorkshire, during 1892 and 1893. He printed the photographs and bound them together in a handmade book of what he called Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men. Alongside each photograph, he included a page recording the time, temperature, pressure and weather conditions when each photograph was taken. His aim was to render the ever-changing clouds into something fixed which could be compared and used to generate a fuller understanding of the atmosphere. This was a continuation of a project that had begun with Luke Howard’s innovation at the start of the century, a nomenclature that distilled the multiplicity of possible cloud forms to just three basic forms.

Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth’s ‘Cloud Forms …’ Photographs: Sarah Dry © 2018 The book is held in the archives at the Royal Society, London

Smyth agreed with the scientific aim of reducing the clouds to ‘nothing but a few mechanical processes’, and he thought that instruments like the camera, the barometer, and the thermometer might one day help to bring such an understanding about. But what Smyth believed to be the ultimate purpose of looking long and hard at the clouds was more like devotion. As he described it

“the forms of beauty exhibited so frequently and prodigally before our neglectful eyes in clouds can only be reverentially looked upon by us. For are they not in truth and fact the perfect works of an all-wise, all-powerful and all-merciful though much to be feared, God.”

For Smyth, looking was its own end, and in looking he felt a connection with the divine.

What moves me about this book is how it embodies the deep ambivalence within the culture in which Smyth lived, with which he himself struggled. On the one hand, he was driven to try to reduce the complexity of the clouds to a set of physical laws. He achieved great success in this endeavour, becoming Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the precocious age of twenty-seven and demonstrating that mountain astronomy was possible by leading a daring expedition up the volcanic mountain at Tenerife. On the other hand, he was moved to a kind of desperate faith at the thought of the endless complexity and prodigality of nature, in the face of which even the best recording devices were impotent. His late-life cloud photography was less a quest to master the skies than a form of surrender to the ultimate unknowability of divine creation.

Today, we often try to separate science from emotion (to say nothing of science and religion), suggesting that to do good science is to be dispassionate. There may be very good reasons to try to carve out spaces from which emotion is explicitly excluded, but Smyth’s poignant book is a material reminder of the potential, within one individual, to embrace two very different ways of observing, and of knowing, the clouds.

An alien vision – CloudSat in the sky

Today, we can sit at home and look through the magical window of the computer at the clouds from space. This is not, strictly speaking, a new achievement. The first Earth-observing satellite program, named Nimbus after the Latin word for rain cloud, was launched by NASA in 1964. Since then, our vision of clouds from space has continued to improve, as instruments have gotten more sensitive and new satellites with new capabilities have been launched. Today, Nimbus’ successor, the less poetically named CloudSat, is part of the so-called A-train of six such satellites devoted to watching Earth.

Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005 Photograph (public domain): NASA Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

The kind of vision CloudSat provides is gratifyingly intimate, but it is also alien. CloudSat uses radar to cut through the clouds, revealing their insides as a surgeon’s knife reveals the inner organs of a patient. An animation (see below) of the inside of Typhoon Dolphin on May 16, 2015, reveals the dramatic structure of the inner eye of the storm, but it remains removed from human experience. That is, in fact, precisely the point. CloudSat reveals what would otherwise be invisible, the interiors of clouds and the storms into which they sometimes assemble. For all its scientific intent, this is a voyeuristic and even transgressive kind of vision, transposing the stark lines of the penetrating radar with the soft billows of the clouds, replacing the familiar vision of the clouds from below with a God’s eye view from above.

Smyth made much of the portability and intimacy of the tools he used. He liked feeling the spectroscope in his hand and devised a special viewfinder to enable him to simultaneously look up at the skies and down through the viewfinder of the camera he used. My interface with the earth’s clouds is through my laptop, a portable but nevertheless impersonal device whose workings are opaque to me. Despite the grandeur of the vision it offers, my computer—and the vast network of technology it accesses—brings me, in fact, no closer to either the satellite which passes the earth’s equator every 99 minutes precisely, or the clouds it so relentlessly, and magically transects. I know what I am looking at but I don’t know how to feel.

MOXIE – a Martian future

There are clouds of water on Mars. This came as a surprise to me as I researched this post. Only recently, scientists have realized that some Martian clouds are probably made of ice crystals, just like high clouds on Earth. Still photographs have been taken from the Curiosity Rover of moody Martian skies, ice crystal clouds brightening the glow of the setting sun. Even more remarkably, a series of photographs show thin stratus-like clouds in motion in the skies above the Curiosity Rover. Most clouds on Mars, however, are made not of water but of carbon dioxide, which makes up more than 95 per cent of its atmosphere (on Earth, it accounts for roughly 0.04 per cent). (Oxygen, on the other hand, is present at just 0.13 per cent, compared with 21 per cent on Earth). Most Martian clouds are, in fact, made up of tiny flakes of frozen carbon dioxide (no bigger than red blood cells) and they hover like giant foggy caps over the poles during Martian winters.

These clouds, and the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere they float in, represents both a challenge and an opportunity to those who would explore or colonize Mars. Here is where MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In situ Experiment, comes into the story. It is a desktop-sized prototype for a tool that could put the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to human use. If all goes well, it will land on Mars sometime in February 2021 and start trying to produce oxygen at a rate of 10 grams an hour. The idea is that this oxygen could be used by human explorers both for breathing, and, critically, as a propellant for fuelling the return trip to Earth. The prospect of beginning to alter the atmospheric chemistry of Mars is with us.

MOXIE already exists in prototype form and is expected to be part of the 2020 Mars Rover launch. As such, this little instrument contributes to the ultimate in futuristic thinking, the idea that humans can colonize Mars. MOXIE is a cute name for a jaunty instrument with a seriously ambitious goal that once seemed nearly impossible and now seems, depending on how you look at it, eminently achievable or wildly misguided.

MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover Image (public domain): NASA Source: NASA Mars 2020 (click image to link)

Either way, there is nothing cute about the prospect of exploring Mars, a goal for which NASA is preparing in earnest. More controversially, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has made much public hay of his ambition to go (at least) one step further: to ‘make life interplanetary.’ Musk frames his goal of colonizing Mars as one of outrageous optimism:

“You want to wake up and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” – Elon Musk, CEO&Lead Designer, Spacex 

What would Piazzi Smyth say about both Musk and MOXIE, about the ambition of pushing out beyond our heavens and into the atmosphere of another planet? And what would he feel when looking at these images of Martian clouds? I am not even sure how they make me feel. Are they frightening, inspiring, or merely strange? I cannot decide and that inability to know my own feelings tells me more, perhaps, than any decipherable feeling would. The distance between me and the cloudscape of Mars is contracting at the speed by which data travels from the Mars rovers cameras and NASA’s Earth-bound computers. It will contract further as projects to explore and possibly colonize Mars proceed. Even as they seek, quite literally, to domesticate Mars, these technologies make me aware, as I have never been before, of all the things I cannot know about Mars. Piazzi Smyth’s cloud photographs, for all the hopes they represented of increasing our knowledge, ultimately left him feeling less enlightened and more reverent. As any good writer knows, what is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is. What we cannot see, in other words, we have to feel.


Back on the home planet, there is more to explore in the clouds at the Cloud Appreciation Society and the World Meteorological Organisation’s World Cloud Atlas. 

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 
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