In the wake of the past century, man has been forced to acknowledge the fragile balance that existed between him and the environment. Environmental changes have resulted in some undesirable effects such as floods and droughts which pose a threat to the survival of man. However experts on the environment affirm that changes in the environment have been occurring for thousands of years and as such, man should adapt himself to best deal with the situation. Environmental adaptation which refers to the changing of current practices in response to the environmental realities of the time has been seen as not only desirable but also mandatory for the survival of the human race. In this essay, I shall give a concise but informative discussion on how one of the great pre-Hispanic civilizations, the Mayans, adapted to the environmental changes that were prevalent at their times. The manner in which the Mayans exploited environmental changes so as to ensure their survival shall be discussed. The constraints and opportunities that the environment posed for the Mayans shall also be articulated and the detrimental practices that finally led to the collapse of the great Mayan civilization highlighted. Further on, I shall offer my opinion as to why I think an understanding of the Mayan people and landscape is important at the present time.
The Ancient Mayan Civilization
Historians have always agreed on the fact that there existed ancient civilizations which exhibited great cultural growth and development. One of the great ancient civilizations known to man is that of the Mayan people. The Maya were a Meso-American civilization who occupied the southern part of present day Mexico. The Mayan culture was made possible by the agricultural conquest by the people (Sharer and Traxler 93). The greatest achievements of the Mayans with regard to the environment were their exploitation of the lowland environment to produce food for millions of people for more than a millennium. Sharer and Traxler contrast this early exploitation of the lowlands by the Mayans to the present day scenario whereby the same lowland landscape has been exhausted after only a few years of growing crops (58).
Environmental Constraints and Opportunities Exploited by the Maya
Domestication was arguable the most dramatic transformation of nature by the ancient Latin American inhabitants. Marston, Knox and Liverman note that starting from over 10,000 years ago, early Latin America inhabitants began domesticating wild plants and animals (335). Domestication led to surplus production of food which inevitably led to the growth of settlements such as the Mayan Civilization which had a complex system and rich culture. Domestication led to the modification of the environment since it resulted in pressure for increased agricultural production as well as exploitation of water and minerals to ensure the growth and prosperity of the society.
Due to the rapid increase in population, the Mayans had to over cultivate their land so as to cater for the food needs of the people. Invariably, this over cultivation resulted in the decline in soil fertility which necessitated the Mayas had to come up with means of reversing this negative phenomena. Clearing and burning of the forests so as to increase soil fertility was practiced as a means of adapting to the environmental changes. Marston, Knox and Liverman highlight that the Mayas practiced swidden agriculture which involved the clearing vast areas of forest, burning them so that the crops benefited from the nutrients in the ash and then abandoning the land while the forests regrew (336). This method was effective since the fertility of the land was assured. The cutting down of trees was followed by a season of afforestation efforts therefore negating the negative effects of deforestation.
The wetland areas that the Maya occupied provided major constraints to both settlement and farming. This is because the constant flooding made the land inhabitable and crops could not survive the waters. However, the Maya developed methods for growing crops in these particular areas by building raised fields which made the crops safe from the flooding while taking advantage of the rich soils that the wetland environment provided (Marston, Knox and Liverman 336). By doing this, the Mayas adapted to their environmental condition favorably and were able to produce enough food to sustain the population.
The Mayan calendar is one of the most important relics from the Mayan civilization. It is widely contended that the greatest Mayan accomplishment was the creation of this intricate calendar system which was based on astronomical events such as the cycles of the sun, moon and planets (Haughton 151). The calendar was the center of the life and culture of the Mayan. The significance of the calendar system in the agricultural life of the Mayan is articulated by Vanden and Prevost who confirm that the Mayan calendar specified the times when the land was to lie fallow and when it was to be cultivated (20).
Another innovation used by the Maya was the terracing of edges of plateaus with multiple low walls so as to stop erosion and retain rich soils (Demarest 138). This technology led to the utilization of steep drop-offs which would otherwise have lain dormant due to soil erosion. In addition to this, small stone box terraces were also used as nurseries in areas near major centers resulting in the availability of food though all seasons (Demarest 138). By using this technology, the Maya were able to provide food to the busting population by exploiting land that was seemingly not cultivatable.
Decline of the Maya Civilization
For many centuries, the Mayans were able to use technology and social organization to adapt to the harsh physical environments that their land presented. However, due to an increase in the need for food, the Maya could no longer afford to leave the lands idle as they had done in the past. This led to large-scale deforestation which not only resulted in regional climatic changes but also brought about soil erosion and a marked decline in soil fertility (Marston, Knox and Liverman 336). The Mayas failure to heed to the past practices that had ensured that the environment was conserved therefore leading to rapid environmental degeneration. Vanden and Prevost out rightly accuse soil exhaustion by the Mayans from over farming as the major factor that led to the rapid decline of the Mayan civilization in 900 (20). As such, environmental degradation was responsible for the collapse of the once mighty Mayan civilization.
The Mayan people were able to build a great civilization by adapting to their environment and using technological innovations to enhance their society. They were therefore able to survive for hundreds of years on land that would otherwise have been considered hostile and harsh. The discussions presented in this paper have demonstrated that it was by adapting to their environment that the Mayas were able to conquer the constraints that natural environmental posed. However, the Mayas eventually overexploited the environment therefore leading to adverse effects which resulted in their demise. By offsetting the delicate balance that they had created with their environment, the Maya were driven into ruins. From this, we can learn that maintaining an ecological balance is necessary to ensure the survival of the human race in these modern times.
Demarest, Arthur. Ancient Maya: the rise and fall of a rainforest civilization. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Haughton, Brian. Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries. Career Press, 2006. Print.
Marston, Sallie., Knox, Paul and Liverman, Diana. World Regions in a Global Context: People, Places, and Environments. 3rd Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.
Sharer, Robert and Morley Griswold. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, 1994. Print.
Vanden, Harry and Prevost, Gary. Politics of Latin America: The Power Game. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.