Editorial Feature

What The Maya Story Tells Us About Global Warming and Urbanization

Robert Bevan on how modern societies might learn from our ancestors

Central America’s ancient Maya civilization was one of the most complex and sophisticated of the ancient world. Highly skilled in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, art, irrigation and agriculture, their network of city states existed for hundreds of years before Columbus was even on the horizon. Why the Maya deserted these cities, leaving their beautiful stone palaces and temples to be taken over by the jungle, is still something of a mystery, but climate change appears to have played a significant part. Understanding more about the collapse of the ancient Maya cities could tell us something about our own urban future.

Mayan Art by Dmitri Kessel (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Learning to read the past

It is only really in recent decades that we have properly begun to understand the Maya story, helped by the cracking of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Maya Code’ – the only fully developed Pre-Columbian writing system in the Americas, which had proved largely unintelligible for much of the previous century. The writing system has a superficial resemblance to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in its use of symbols, although Maya has symbols that represent syllables and entire words which are grouped together. The job of translating these Maya glyphs was made that much harder by the fact that the Catholic Church destroyed all but three of their books in the 16th century. The absence of written records has meant that archaeologists have turned to architecture and monuments – carved stelae, stucco and lintels – as well as painted ceramics to find text that can help them understand the Maya story.

Leaves 4 to 7 from a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, a Maya screenfold book. Am2006,Drg.224 (From the collection of British Museum)
Pusilha Stela K, Am1928,Q.82 (From the collection of British Museum)

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Alfred Maudslay at Chichén Itzá, 1889 (From the collection of British Museum)

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

3D scanned model of a Maudslay cast (From the collection of British Museum)

How the Maya civilisation disintegrated

Instead of an empire with a single centralized capital, Maya society was organized as a series of city-states across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and southern Mexico. These cities were not densely organized and tightly circumscribed, but garden cities, eschewing formal avenues in favor of responding to the topography of the natural world. At the heart of each city would be ceremonial and palace structures, but beyond these massive pyramidal temples and other stone buildings, the urban area would spread irregularly from plazas and marketplaces with thatched houses interspersed with garden plots, canals and trees.

Maudslay photo of Tikal temple D (V) (From the collection of British Museum)

So why were these cities deserted? Popular theories indicate that this was due to prolonged dry periods of up to a century. Evidence suggests that during these dry periods the cities failed to thrive and could no longer support their populations, most likely leading to competition for resources and, in some cases, intensified warfare. It’s been proposed that the civilization fought itself apart under these pressures

Maudslay photo of Tikal temple A (I) (From the collection of British Museum)

But this disintegration didn’t happen overnight. Curator of the Americas at the British Museum, Jago Cooper, is not keen on ‘rapid collapse’ theories: “I’d never use the word ‘collapse’”, Cooper says. “That has always been way overstated.” Instead, he argues, Maya cities rose and fell over centuries, sometimes under pressure from an increasingly dry climate.

Populations sometimes migrated elsewhere, as seems to have been the case between the Petén of northern Guatemala and Coastal Belize during the Post Classic period. While the last Maya city, Nojpetén, fell to the Spanish rather than drought in 1697, the Maya people and languages thrive to this day (though using a Latin script rather than glyphs) and, though some Maya today still hold on to the vestiges of old rituals – making offerings on auspicious days of the Maya calendar at ancient sites – others now practice a mixture of Christianity and older belief systems.

Women of a Cofradía, Nebaj, Quiché (From the collection of Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena)

The Maya’s merger with other coastal people under new elites and colonial conquest is, Cooper suggests, why new Maya cities didn’t arise in these new locations. Maya villages remain, however, and architectural traditions such as wooden, thatched buildings that work with the contours of the land continue. The stone glories of the ancient Maya remain too, if rather weather-beaten or in ruins.

Mayan Art by Dmitri Kessel (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

What we can take from the Maya story

The Maya story shows that, despite the size and complexity of great societies, all civilizations are vulnerable: vulnerable to the elements, to natural changes, to the movements of peoples, to infighting and conflict. When we look up at our great skyscrapers, our majestic cities with their beautiful, hundred-year-old buildings and millions of people living within them, shuffling to the subway, crossing roads, coming and going to work, to shop, to meet friends, it can be hard to imagine that life could ever be any different. But today, just like the Maya, we are threatened by climate change, as well as social upheaval and war. Could it be that in thousands of years time, tourists will walk around the ruined walls of Grand Central Station on holiday, will look up at the Notre-Dame and think, ‘did people really worship here?’, will explore the crumbled, overgrown structure of the Sydney Opera House? Remembering the fragility of our own civilization in the face of time can teach us powerful lessons of how we act and respond to the world in the present day.


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Words by Robert Bevan | Translation by Carolina Casado Parras
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