How We Can Learn from the Fall of the Mayan Civilization


The fall of the Mayan civilization has puzzled scholars for years. At the Mayan’s peak, the civilization was made up by more than 19 million people. However, during the 8thor 9thcentury the Mayan civilization suddenly collapsed. In his book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond puts forth a theory about the sudden demise of the Mayan civilization. Diamond believes that a prolonged drought which was intensified by rapid deforestation led to the collapse of the once great Mayan civilization (Stromberg).Studying the collapse of the Mayan civilization can be beneficial for a multitude of reasons. We can determine the ways in which the Mayans exacerbated deforestation along with the effects which it had. In the book, “American Anthropologist,” Fisher and Feinman link past human activity to a range of environmental changes. Analysis of past human activity and its effects on the environmental are critical to evaluating contemporary environmental debates and policies. As seen in Figure 1, the decline of the Mayan population was closely tied to rapid deforestation coupled with the soil erosion. The Mayans burned and chopped down their forests in order to clear land for agriculture and also to acquire wood for the elaborate construction of their cities (Stromberg). Deforestation in Central American still remains extremely problematic today. In Honduras, it is estimated that up to 85% of timber which is cut down is done so illegally (Charlotte). Deforestation is a great threat to biodiversity, leading birds, animals and plants to lose their natural habitats. The world’s forests are one big carbon sink, storing and locking away carbon dioxide avoiding its immediate release into the atmosphere. When a tree dies all of the carbon that has been stored away is released back into the atmosphere. If the tree is cut down prematurely, the process is accelerated. Currently global loss of forests is contributing 12-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions (Charlotte). This information about the fall of the Mayan civilization becomes increasingly alarming when we look into what is currently going on in Brazil. Recently, a new President was elected in Brazil, Jair Bolsonar. Bolsonar’s environmental policies can be perceived as being a threat to human existence all together. As seen in Figure 2, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has been on a general downtrend. However, this may soon change. Bolsonar’s policies favor business over biodiversity and calls for pro-market ways of exploiting Brazil’s natural resources. Bolsonar also has promised to weaken the enforcement of environmental laws. It is extremely important to learn from the failures of past human societies and civilizations. It is thought that we have 12 years to prevent the dangerous destabilization of the Earth’s climate (The Guardian).  We have seen how deforestation led to the demise of the once great Mayan civilization. Hopefully we will use the information we have learned from the past to solve the deforestation problems which are still extremely prevalent today.


Additional Readings:

Figure 1. Population density, Deforestation and Soil Erosion for the Mayan Civilization


Figure 2: Deforestation in Brazil


Works Cited   

Charlotte. “Deforestation in Central America.” Crop Cycle,

Fisher, Christopher T, and Gary M Feinman. American Anthropologist .

Stromberg, Joseph. “Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to .   Deforestation and Climate Change.”, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Aug.        2012,    collapse-a-new-study-points-to-deforestation-and-climate-change-30863026/?no-ist.

“The Guardian View on Brazil’s New President: a Global Danger | Editorial.” The Guardian,          Guardian News and Media, 31 Oct. 2018, .          president-a-global-danger.

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LIDAR Survey Reveals New Information About the Maya Lowlands

For years, archaeologists have been using LIDAR to study ancient Maya sites. Recently, an analysis was released of a 2016 survey of the Maya lowlands. The survey, the largest ever done in the region, covered 2,144 square kilometers of land and uncovered a total of 61,480 ancient man-made structures (Canuto et. al 2018). Although the population density was clearly not homogenous – some areas were very rural while others were were far more urban – the researchers estimate an average population density of about 120 people per square kilometer, or about 7 to 11 million people total (Canuto et. al 2018).  According to Dr. Thomas Garrison, one of the archaeologists involved with analyzing the data, this discovery is revolutionary because it places population estimates in this region at several times more than was previously thought and reveals new information about the politics, economics, and agricultural practices of the area (St. Fleur 2018).

A map of the surveyed regions.

As one might expect, a significant amount of farmland was needed to produce food for such a large population, and this could be found right there in the lowlands (Canuto et. al 2018). According to archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, “All of these hundreds of square kilometers of what we thought were unusable swamp were actually some of the most productive farmland” (St. Fleur 2018). The urban areas would have relied on the rural ones for importing food, since the LIDAR scans show that there was not enough farmland immediately surrounding most of them to support their populations. In fact, the many kilometers of roadways imply a high level of interconnectedness between much of the surveyed area, while the infrastructure layout and connectivity more generally reveals that there was likely large-scale planning done by a centralized power (Canuto et. al 2018).

Some of the LIDAR rendering, showing several houses and other structures.

This LIDAR survey reveals important information about the farming practices of the Maya as well as about the extensive infrastructure and organization of their societies. The intensive farming itself is not an isolated thing, since it is known that Mayan agricultural practices and urban expansion had significant impacts on the land (Stromberg 2012). But what is surprising is the location and extent of the land modification. This study will help archaeologists and historians better understand the Maya lowlands, and develop a better image of what their societies look like, and possibly even why they fell. Since our modern societies are facing increasing environmental crises (also partially from unsustainable farming practices) it is more important than ever to learn from the past to change the future.


Works Cited:

Canuto, Marcello et al.

 2018  Ancient Maya Lowland Complexity as Revealed by Airborne Laser Scanning of Northern Guatemala. Science Magazine, accessed 1 November 2018.

St. Fleur, Nicholas.

 2018  Hidden Kingdoms of the Ancient Maya Revealed in a 3D Laser Map. The New York Times, accessed 1 November 2018.

Stromberg, Joseph.

 2012  Why did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Deforestation and Climate Change. Smithsonian Magazine, accessed 3 November 2018.

Image Sources:

Estrada-Belli, Francisco.

 2018  The New York Times, September 27, 2018, , accessed 3 November 2018.

Canuto, Marcello et. al

 2018  Science Magazine, September 2018, , accessed 3 November 2018.

Further Reading:

“Drought and the Ancient Maya Civilization.”

“Mayans Converted Wetland to Farmland.”

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Homo Naledi: A Surprisingly Modern Relative

In 2013, a deep, at some points very narrow cave system called Rising Star in South Africa produced bones that would be identified as a new addition to the Homo genus, named Homo naledi. The over 1,500 bones found, belonging to at least 15 individuals of varying ages, shared many traits with ourselves, such as the structure of their hands, wrists and feet, while also having many stark differences, including a much smaller brain that is closer to the Homo habilis (Hendry 2018). This mix of primitive and more modern features is curious, by not that surprising by itself, considering how complex the family tree is and how different members of the genus evolved in different ways.

The more surprising aspect of Homo naledi discovery is the age and location of the bones. To date the remains, the archaeologists who discovered the chamber first used radiometric dating on the flowstones, calcite deposited on the bones by running water that must have covered them at some point, and found that they were around 236,000 years old, meaning that the remains had to be older than that. After finding the minimum age, the team found the other end of the range by looking at how the cave’s natural radioactivity had affected the Homo naledi’s teeth by using electron spin resonance dating and estimated the maximum age to be around 335,000 years old (Greshko 2017). This dating makes the more primitive traits much more surprising because it means they were alive much closer to the time of Homo Sapiens than other members with similar brain sizes that lived millions of years ago (Figure 1), magnifying the complexity of the human’s already complicated evolution because it rejects the idea that brains have strictly gotten bigger and bigger as time has passed.

A timeline of the Homo genus based on the estimated first appearance of each member.


The placement of the bones was also puzzling considering the cave to get to the two chambers that were found is almost impossible to traverse, the chute (Figure 2) getting as narrow as 18 centimeters wide.

A cross section of the Rising Star cave system, showing the pathway that leads to the chamber that had most of the Homo naledi bones.

This brings up the question of why these individuals were brought into the cave system. A lack of marks on the bones and animal bones suggests that they were not dragged into the cave by any other animal (Zhang 2017), their own kind had most likely moved them. This kind of treatment of the dead is strange behavior for creatures with their smaller brains. While other animals today acknowledge their dead, navigating a complicated cave system, and probably having to use fire to do so (Hendry 2018), suggests a higher level of cognition and culture.


Greshko, Michael. “Naledi Fossils.” National Geographic, 9 May 2018,

Hendry, Lisa. “Homo naledi, your most recently discovered human relative.” The Natural History Museum, 5 September 2018,

Zhang, Sarah. “A New Addition to the Human Family Tree is Surprisingly Young.” The Atlantic, 9 May 2017,


Additional Readings

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Tracing Galena Artifacts at Poverty Point Back to their Source

The Poverty Point archaeological site in northeastern Louisiana is most widely known for its massive earthen mounds measuring up to 72 feet tall and forming six concentric semicircles. At its height from 1200 BCE to 700 BCE, the Poverty Point Native American site had an estimated population of around 5,000 and its advanced architecture and tools indicate a thriving society.  Not only is Poverty Point an architectural wonder, it also serves as an indicator of a widespread trading network throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Stones and artifacts from as far as 1000 miles have been found by archeologists at Poverty Point.

When archeologists first began observing large amounts of stone artifacts at Poverty Point, they were able to identify the key element in many of the artifacts as galena, a shiny silver form of lead (II) sulfide. By 1970, over 700 artifacts containing galena had been identified at Poverty Point and four smaller surrounding settlements. The most common galena artifacts are bird effigy pendants, oval pendants, beads, and polished rectangles.

Galena has been found in a wide range of artifacts at Poverty Point including pendants, beads, polished rectangles and stones. Archeologists believe that these artifacts were often used for ceremonial and decorative purposes at Poverty Point as well as other Native American sites throughout the Southeast.

Archeologists used trace element analysis, the process of identifying elements present in small amounts, in order to trace a material back to its source of origin. Trace element analysis of galena artifacts at Poverty Point indicated that the majority of the rocks originated from the Potosi deposit in Missouri while others were from the upper Mississippi valley. Archeologists also conducted trace element analysis of galena artifacts at seven other Native American sites and found that 55% of the artifacts could be traced to the Potosi deposit and 34% to the upper Mississippi valley while the other 11% was inconclusive. Because of this evidence, archeologists were able to identify a trading pattern that used the Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Arkansas River as well as the Ouachita stream and stopped at sites including Yazoo Basin and a Native American settlement at Calion.

Galena was by no means the only material traded at Poverty Point. This map shows the source areas for other minerals found at Poverty Point in addition to the two main galena source points which are marked as A and C on this map.

Archeologists have also noted a highly similar style of bird pendants made from galena in four different locations along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers indicate that galena was traded both as a raw material and as a finished product. This exhibits the shared cultural importance of galena while also indicating variations in cultural traditions.

Additionally, this trade is especially interesting to archeologists as it does not follow the theory of fall off analysis which states that the quantity of a material will decrease with the distance from the source of that material. There are many more galena artifacts at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana than there are at sites closer to the Potosi deposit. This indicates that the trade was not simply a reciprocal exchange, but rather a more complicated directional trading pattern. The Poverty Point trading network is one of the first instances of large scale long distance trade in the Americas that can be fully shown by archeologists. It represents an extremely important development in society as well as social organization.

Additional Readings:

Feasting at Poverty Point

Trace Element Analysis on Pottery from Oaxaca


Hays, Christopher T, Richard A Weinstein, and James B Stoltman

2016 Poverty Point Objects Reconsidered. Southeastern Archeology

Hill, Mark A, Diana M Greenlee, and Hector Neff
2016 Assessing the provenance of Poverty Point copper. Journal of Archaeological Science 6: 351–360

Louisiana Division of Archaeology

2014 Discover Archaeology. Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism

Walthall, John A, Clarence H Webb, Stephen H Stow, and Sharon I Goad

1982 Galena Analysis and Poverty Point Trade. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 7: 133–148


Image Citations:

Material Source Map. Louisiana Archaeology Project


Galena Artifacts. Louisiana Division of Archaeology

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