Are We Dumber Than Ancient Mayans?
There has been was a bit of news
about a new 2,000-year climate record from the Yok Balum Cave in
Belize that, according to a press release "shows how Maya
political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate
change." I was pleased to see an article about it even made it
into my local newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal.
But after reading it I got to thinking
about a recent writing assignment
I got from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) on the demise of the classic
Mayan civilization. One of the take home messages I got from talking
with the SFI folks is that nothing is ever so simple as some of the
press on this new climate record suggests. These researchers are
experts at modeling complex adaptive systems of all kinds – from
cells to civilizations. They love the stuff that gives the rest of us
headaches: big messy complicated systems that change a lot and have
way too many variables. It's like candy to them.
VIDEO: Monitoring Climate Change
Their take on the demise of the Classic
Maya civilization in the Central Maya Lowlands in the ninth century
A.D. — reported in the August 20, 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of
Science — is that while climate was important, it was not the only
“There is no monolithic period of collapse, but a lot of
variability,” co-author and President of the Santa Fe Institute
Jerry Sabloff told me. “What we see are many variable patterns. The only way to
explain the variability is to take a complex systems view.”
Sabloff and Arizona State University geographer B.
L. Turner wove together a complex, data-rich history of Classic Maya
agricultural practices and the demands on ecosystem services that
stressed the environment and made it vulnerable for trouble when one
particular drought hit.
In other words, maybe the drought
wouldn't have done it if the Maya had managed some other things
differently. Of course, the Classic Maya probably had limited ability to assess
the long-term effects of their farming practices and likewise perhaps had no
reason to believe the climate could change so dramatically. It was
just bad luck, you might say.
Which begs the question: Now that we have the Classic Mayan's example to learn from, along with all sorts of other advanced scientific understanding of human effects on the planet, can we do any better? Absolutely! But if for some reason we don't, virtuous "bad luck" will be not our excuse.
Photo Credit: Douglas Kennett/Penn State