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

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.