Lessons from the mighty Maya

 

One theory about the collapse of the Maya civilization in Mexico some 1100 years ago is based on evidence that they had perfected a bureaucracy of corn. Exhaustive rules governed how corn was grown, distributed and consumed.  A rigid hierarchy defined every individual's social position and allotment of corn, and this cultural arrangement lasted 650 years.

But when drought and declining soil fertility reduced the corn supply, established procedures no longer worked. One city after another fell until nothing was left but jungle-covered pyramids and toppled stone calendars. On the hillsides above the ruins, small villages grew tiny amounts of corn that allowed lives that were hungry and short. It's not hard to imagine that the Bush administration's scramble to solve the current financial crisis has precedent in the throne rooms of Mayan city-states. I can hear it now…

"We need more corn," financial ministers said to cacao-addled Mayan kings.  "Unemployed tortilla-makers are rioting in the ball-courts. The people on the bottom aren't getting any corn at all."

"No problem," the kings said. "We'll borrow corn from our Mayan brothers in the other city-states. Look at Chichen Itza. They've got corn. We've sent them tons of corn to pay for the jade jaguar statues and giant stone calendars that their slaves make."

"No, Chichen Itza won't lend us any more corn until we pay back the corn they've already lent us.  Besides, they've got so many slaves that they're eating the huge corn surplus they've built up."

"Then our slaves must work harder," the kings said. "That will bring efficiency into our agricultural economy."

"We tried that," the ministers said. "They keep dying."

"Then we will form an alliance with Tikal and Palenque and march on Chichen Itza and take their hoarded corn away before their slaves eat it all."

"That could work," the ministers said. "We'll equip all our unemployed tortilla-makers with spears, and attack those greedy Chichen-Itzans and get our corn back."

The Maya must have all had the same idea at the same time, because continuous wars between city-states put impossible demands on an already struggling corn economy. The slaves who grew the corn refused to give it up to government tax collectors. Those slaves were killed, and armies trampled the cornfields to dust.

The Mayan population crashed. Human sacrifice may have gone from religious ritual to protein source. Bad things happened to those kings whose unemployed tortilla-makers were defeated by another king's unemployed tortilla-makers.

Through all of the collapse, kings were still kings. High priests still prayed to jaguar gods. Bureaucrats still begat bureaucrats. Deep patterns of cultural behavior persisted until death and beyond. If a minister of taxation was killed by angry corn-growers, another minister of taxation miraculously took his place.

Centuries after the fall of Mayan cities, you could argue that America has followed a similar path. We have perfected a bureaucracy of money, and the financial structures that have resulted from this bureaucracy will persist long after the money's gone. There will be a Federal Reserve even when there is no reserve, and not much federal. Bailouts will happen even when there's nothing left to bail. More and more unemployed will be sent to fight more and more wars. The people on the bottom of the hierarchy will be squeezed so normal life can go on for those at the top.

Through it all, there will be a relentless reduction in the supply of wealth. Future archaeologists who ponder the ruins of small city-states in the deserts of North America will know that even as the need for oil siphoned money out of the American financial system, cultural rituals survived. Completed but unused airports will be seen as the expensive monuments of a quasi-religious cargo cult.  Ruined amphitheaters and sports complexes will be identified as sites of human sacrifice, where high priests of losing financial-services companies had their hearts torn out and eaten by the high priests of winning financial-services companies. Money will have remained a god even in its absence.

Future archaeologists will move sand, not jungle, to uncover the works of the Americans. Our drought will have been longer and more severe, aided by the carbon dioxide created by burning the last remaining fossil fuels. Our extensive canal system will have been buried under dunes.

Here and there, shifting sands will reveal objects of ancient worship: BMWs, SUVs and the occasional Jaguar.

John Rember is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Stanley, Idaho

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.