Did environmental disasters play role in Mayan decline?

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Apocalypto fans might be forgiven for thinking the fabled collapse of the ancient Maya, the retreat of a civilization from pyramids and ceremonial centers across Central America from 800 to 1000 A.D., involved all sorts of cataclysmic events, war, famine and devastation. Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed detailed how environmental disasters might be to blame, a popular scholarly explanation for the Maya collapse.
"These models suggest that as ecosystems were destroyed by mismanagement or were transformed by global climatic shifts, the depletion of agricultural and wild foods eventually contributed to the failure of the Maya sociopolitical system," writes environmental archaeologist Kitty Emery of the Florida Museum of Natural History in the current Human Ecology journal.

But in that case, she asks in her study, what do the archaeological remains of what the Maya ate tell us about the collapse? To find out, Emery looked to the precious archaeological resources offering the keys to the past.

"We looked mostly at garbage pits," Emery says, 460 of them, left over from former centers of the Petexbatun region of Guatemala, "right in the heart of the central lowlands" where the Maya lived. Petexbatun (Peh-tesh-BAH-toon) is best known for the abandoned pyramid centers of Dos Pilas and Cancuen investigated by a group led by Vanderbilt University's Arthur Demarest for more than a decade. Sorting through trash heaps in the region, Emery and colleagues have collected the bones, shells and scraps thrown away by the Maya who once lived near these sites.

Emery looked at game animal remains from white-tail deer, red brocket deer and peccaries (small pig-like critters native to Central America) to see if the hunting went south on the Maya before the collapse. Did the Maya switch to less tasty animals as the collapse neared and the larder went bare?

Not so much, the study reports. "Resource depression, if it existed in this region during the collapse periods, is reflected by the reduced availability of a single species (white-tail deer) and not the cadre of nutritionally significant prey. It was therefore not a significant factor in the political and social changes ("the Maya collapse") that occurred at the end of occupation in the Petexbatun region."

In fact, looking back at the animal remains dating back to the earliest era of Maya occupation in the region, about 600 B.C., the hunting in Petexbatun seems to have been okay for a long time. Whenever the elite at a site were bent on impressing the neighbors, through marriages, alliances or other means, they went hunting for white-tailed deer, "food that was associated with fertility, leadership and status," Emery says. "They were showing off. It's an old story."

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