Mayan civilization, from the beginning, was all about agriculture. The earliest Mayas that bridged the gap between a hunter-gatherer society and an agricultural one had a lot to learn, and they had to learn it fast because they only had one chance to get it right. Since corn cannot grow in the wild, if they ever had a crop failure there was no chance to go back to nature to replenish their seed supply. Even after the Maize god gave them corn, the earliest Mayas had to get soil and water together in a place where sunlight hit the ground, and that combination didn't exist anywhere. They couldn't go out and find the right growing environment, they had to make it from scratch. In that very first growing season someone had to burn a hole in the jungle, and plant the corn in clearing amid the remaining ash. Nothing else could have worked, but work it did. Is it any surprise that they developed a view of the world where the active participation of humans was required to make the universe work?

     Next, they then had to work out when to plant so the seasonal rains arrived at the right point in the growing cycle. This problem almost certainly led to the development of the Tol'kin and the Ha'ab, the first Mayan calendars. The first charts the growing cycle of corn while the second charts the solar cycle which brings the seasonal rains. Writing and mathematics became the calendar makers tools of the trade.

     Once they'd worked out the basics of what, when and how to plant, they turned their attention to the efficient use of the land. Their solution was to cluster extended family members onto tracts of land 20 times the size necessary to produce enough food to feed them for a year. By burning and cultivating just 5% of the land each year and then allowing 19 years for the surrounding jungle to reclaim it, they had the formula for a sustainable agriculture, that could produce small surpluses, and could scale up as the population increased. They had accomplished the impossible, and the people prospered. The regular food supply allowed individuals to grow bigger, healthier, and more numerous than would ever have been possible in a hunter-gatherer scenario. This pattern required the people to be scattered around the countryside, not concentrated in towns.

     Maya agriculture opened the door to a golden age. The population gradually increased as this pattern of land use replicated itself across the landscape like a wave in slow motion. Maya civilization rode that wave for nearly 2000 years. Without population centers, central authority, kings, armies or war, the Maya were completely isolated from the rest of the world while they continued to fine tune the basic skills that made it all possible.

     Because the hand of early Maya lay so gently on the land, there are no artifacts to discover from this period, and almost nothing is known, except that their ability to decern useful information from observations of the sky, to accumulate and record that information, to calculate the cycles of repetitive motions, and their unique world view; the cornerstones of the Maya were in a state of high polish before their civilization turned the page, around 1000 BC.

     It was about that time that the Maya discovered the fertility of swamp-bottom sediments and began to mine them and spread them on adjacent areas of low fertility. Irrigation trenches soon followed, creating a water supply somewhat independent of the annual rains. The Maya were able to grow annual crops on the same piece of land. They didn't have to leave 95% of it uncultivated. They could grow other crops besides just corn. This new agriculture was a smash hit! Productivity soared and population growth accelerated, but this was a localized phenomenon confined to a few small areas near swamps.

     This new system marks the beginning of what we now call the "pre-classic" era which ushered in a whole host of "firsts" for this already 2000 year old culture. As this new system spread to suitable areas, towns began to appear. Some grew into cities, some of those became magnificent. The first ones were built from the debris created by chopping those irrigation trenches in the limestone bedrock. Those towns and cities, each had its own mayor, not kings. Their power was limited to one city or town. Some founded dynasties, the earliest of which pre-date the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. They outlasted the classic Egyptian civilization, the classic Greek civilization, the Roman Empire, and ended during the reign of Charlemagne. Their cities became a destination for traders, and the first trade routes were established. Cracks were beginning to appear in the isolation that surrounded the Maya region.

     One of the larger swampy areas was found in the Mirador Basin in northern Guatemala. Beside it the Maya built a magnificent city containing over 200 pyramids, twice as many as in all of Egypt. One of them became the largest building in the world, a title it held for nearly 2000 years. It required 15 million man-days to construct. The Maya knew how to assemble and manage a large labor force.

     The Maya were on a roll during their 3rd millennium until about 200 AD, when a terrible drought brought the pre-classic period to an end. When the seasonal rains failed the Maya civilization was driven to its knees. As agricultural production plummeted, so did the population. Some areas, including cities, were abandoned as survivors retreated into the forest, relying on the skills and wisdom handed down from their ancient ancestors. Maya would never inhabit those places again.

     The drought decimated the Maya population and traumatized the survivors. They learned the fragility of civilization and the value of the ancient ways, but at a terrible cost. The rains eventually returned and the population stabilized. By 250 AD the Maya were back on their feet. That date marks the beginning of the classic period.

     Reservoirs were at the top of the agenda. They had learned the value of storing water. They built lots of them, and the cities that grew around them were sloped to funnel rain water into them. The limestone they cut from the ground was the raw material for building. Other cities were built where water was more plentiful. Most of the stone architecture you can see today at sites like Palenque, Tikal, and Copan, and hundreds of other ruins in between, date from this period.

     In the classic period, the Maya isolation ended when Mexicans entered the picture. On January 17, 378 AD a hand full of Mexicans walked into Tikal and took over with barely a fight. In the 5th century it happened at Copan, and in the 6th century at Palenque. With a promise to "cause the sun to rise, the rain to fall, and the corn to grow" these "divine lords" grafted a Mexican elite on top of the Maya population in these and other cities. With them came quaint Mexican customs like ritual bloodletting and warfare, which had been unknown to the Maya before their arrival. The Maya participated mostly as spectators.

     Throughout the classic period the population grew. With 500 people per mile in rural areas and 2000 per mile in the cities, population densities reached levels similar to Los Angeles County today. The Maya had built hundreds of cities and towns, and contained 10's of thousands stone buildings. With massive reservoir, drainage and irrigation projects, the Maya reshaped the landscape. Their hand no longer lightly touched the ground. As the cities grew beyond their ability to feed themselves, the 5% rule was bent and then broken. The agricultural system was creaking under the strain. Eventually 80% of the land was deforested, and that affected the local weather as the temperature of the ground rose 5 or 10 degrees F. As water evaporated faster, they had water problems even before catastrophe struck.

     In the first half of the 9th century the world's weather went haywire. Tree ring studies in Sweden say that Europe had its coldest weather ever. Gas bubbles trapped in Greenland's glaciers suggest that vegetation in the northern hemisphere hit a low. Lake bottom core samples in the Yucatan suggest the worst drought in 7000 years hit the region. Rivers and lakes went dry, some for as long as 9 years. That drought marked the end of the classic period.

     As at the end of the pre-classic period, the Maya abandoned all of the lowland cities and never returned, but this time there were millions of Maya. As each city collapsed, the refugees overwhelmed resources in the adjacent areas. The Maya cities collapsed one after the other. Depending on the quality of the water supply and the extend of local environmental degradation, they fell like dominoes over a 50 year period. 90% of the Maya died, along with 100% of their Mexican "divine lords", who could not keep their promise to "cause the rain to fall and the corn to grow", no matter how much blood they sacrificed. Some of the Maya managed to migrate to the Toltec cities in the northern Yucatan, like Chitzen Itza and Uxmal, where populations grew rapidly at this time. Most died in the forest. Late in the 9th century the drought would end but Maya civilization would never recover.

     A few Maya cities in Belize survived the collapse that ended the classic period but in Guatemala survivors reverted to the ways of their ancient ancestors, scattered across the countryside in family units. The were very few new towns and no new cities in the post-classic period. City life had lost its shine. In the next 700 years the jungle reclaimed its stones from the classic era cities, so when the Europeans invaded in the 16th century, the Maya, past and present, were well hidden.

     When the Spanish arrived in 1517 and unleashed their biological weapons, they perpetrated the greatest genocide in world history, killing 95% of the inhabitants of the entire new world, perhaps 50 million people in all. The Maya were not immune. In less than 100 years 2 entire continents were emptied of their people. While the mighty warlike Aztec empire in Mexico fell in less than 2 years, and the Inca empire followed a similar time line in the south, the Maya, who never had an empire or an army, held out for 160 years.

     In 1547 a sociopathic Franciscan friar named Diego de Landa claimed to receive a divine inspiration that Maya writing was the work of the devil. In San Cristobol de las Casas, Mexico, he rounded up as much of the prolific output of Maya scribes as he could find. Without reading or understanding them, counting or even weighing them, in a single night he reduced the wisdom and knowledge of an advanced civilization, accumulated over 3500 years, to ashes. He then spent years burning anyone he could find who could write Maya. When he could find no more, he burned anyone who could read it. In one of the greatest tragedies in history, he condemned all of us to be forever ignorant of the Maya contribution to the common heritage of mankind.

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