Ancient Mayan society

Lessons from Modelling the
November 18, 2019 – 07:45 am
The ancient Mayan society

In Brief

The ancient Maya provide an example of a complex social-ecological system which developed impressively before facing catastrophic reorganization. In order for our contemporary globally-connected society to avoid a similar fate, we aim to learn how the ancient Maya system functioned, and whether it might have been possible to maintain resilience and avoid collapse. The MayaSim computer model was constructed to test hypotheses on whether system-level interventions might have resulted in a different outcome for the simulated society. We find that neither collapse nor sustainability are inevitable, and the fate of social-ecological systems relates to feedbacks between the human and biophysical world, which interact as fast and slow variables and across spatial and temporal scales. In the case of the ancient Maya, what is considered the ‘peak’ of their social development might have also been the ‘nadir’ of overall social-ecological resilience. Nevertheless, modelling results suggest that resilience can be achieved and long-term sustainability possible, but changes in sub-systems need to be maintained within safe operating boundaries.

Key Concepts

  • The MayaSim model represents the development and reorganization of an integrated social-ecological system. Perturbing the system, we can test what parameter combinations result in either sustainability or collapse.
  • The complex nature of social-ecological systems means there is no single-cause explanation of sustainability or collapse. Interacting human and biophysical sub-systems regulate the magnitude of reorganizations.
  • The capacity of the system to avoid undesirable outcomes is related to rates of change in these interacting sub-systems, the interaction of fast and slow-changing variables, and the effect of cross-scale dynamics.

The archaeological record reveals diverse societies that flourished in their time and place and succeeded in achieving impressive works of architecture, novel technological advancement, complex economies, and other measures of human achievement. The archaeological record also shows complex societies having declined, some gradually, others precipitously, with common explanations including changing environmental conditions, greedy rulers, wars and conquest, resource depletion, pathogens, and overpopulation. However, single-cause explanations, or even a string of single-cause explanations do not do justice to past peoples, who like us, must have known their vulnerabilities and must have sought to adapt.

rsz_fea_heckbert_figure2_0.jpgIn this article, we explore whether the concept of resilience, as represented within a simulation model, can help explain the collapse of a civilization. We use the ancient Maya as an example to explore how that society might have avoided collapse, and provide insight into the resilience of our current global civilization.

The ancient Maya: A case study of societal resilience and vulnerability

Ryan Greenberg / CC BY-NC 2.0

The centers of trade in the MayaSim program are equivalent to the capitals of Tikal and Caracól, the latter pictured here in present day Belize.

The political and economic history of the ancient Maya (specifically the lowland Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula) suggests a pattern of regional and sub-regional growth, decline, and reorganization during the Preclassic (1000 BCE –250 CE), Classic (250–900 CE), and Postclassic periods (900–1500 CE). Classic Maya culture reached its height around 700 CE before a rapid and fundamental transformation altered its political, social, economic, and demographic organization, commonly referred to as the “Classic Maya Collapse”.1, 2, 3 This significant reorganization defines the transition from the Classic to Postclassic period at a time when Maya society was growing at its fastest rate, building many of its most impressive monuments, and increasing in its socioeconomic connectivity. For example, Temple IV at Tikal in present-day Guatemala is the tallest building in the pre-Columbian Americas, and was constructed in 747 CE.4 The majority of Tikal’s population was lost soon after, during the period from 830 to 950 CE.5 The largest building in present-day Belize is still the main Maya architectural complex at Caracol, abandoned around 900 CE.rsz_fea_heckbert_figure3_0.jpg At the end of the Classic period the population of the Maya lowlands had reached an order of magnitude larger than the region supports today, with some estimates as high as 10 million people.6 Following their Late Classic peak, there was a political, social, and economic crisis, and many cities, some supporting up to 100, 000 people, were abandoned.7, 8, 9 This narrative should be balanced with a perspective of the entire Maya historical timeline given the Maya are today a populous, diverse and resilient people, speaking 29 Mayan languages.

Simulating the ancient Maya

The Integrated History and future of People on Earth (IHOPE) initiative This model can be used to test hypotheses of societal development, resilience and social-ecological vulnerabilities. The MayaSim model is presented as one possible set of assumptions about how the ancient Maya social-ecological system might have functioned. The model is a simplified representation of the Maya system.

MayaSim represents individual settlements as ‘agents’ located in a landscape represented as a grid of cells. Settlement agents manage agriculture and forest harvesting over a set of local cells, and establish trade with neighbours, allowing trade networks to emerge. Agents, cells, and networks are programmed to represent elements of the historical Maya civilization, including demographics, trade, agriculture, soil degradation, provision of ecosystem services, climate variability, hydrology, primary productivity, and forest succession. Simulating these in combination allows patterns to emerge at the landscape level, effectively growing the social-ecological system from the bottom up. The MayaSim model is able to reproduce spatial patterns and timelines that mimic relatively well some elements of what we know about ancient Maya history, such as the general location of important capital cities, and the maximum overall population.

Erik Törner, IM Individuell Människohjälp / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Maya today remain a populous and diverse people, with over 29 spoken languages. In Guatemala, the Chichicastenango Maya Market remains a place for trade.

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Popular Q&A
What was the ancient Mayans challenges?

drought or no rain for long time

What was an ancient Mayan codex.

A codex is an old manuscript, in the form of a book, which replaced the scroll between the years 0-300 AD. They were written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark cloth.

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