All posts filed under: Climate Change and Society

The Postclassic Period and the Mayan-Toltec Cities of the Yucatán

During the Postclassic Mayan Period, between approximately 800 and 1000 A.D., the center of Mayan urban development shifted to the northern Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Here a series of notable cities such as Uxmal, located in the Puuc Hills near modern-day Mérida, arose. The Yucatán cities of the Postclassic period had large central cores containing huge buildings with elaborate carved or plaster motifs repeated over and over on the masonry blocks. The so called Casa del Gobernador at Uxmal is 8 meters high, 12 meters tall and extends for almost 100 in length. It contains 24 chambers. The facade of the Casa del Gobernador is made up of limestone blocks with over 20,000 decorative elements such as the mask of the rain god Chac.  To the east of Uxmal the Post-classic pyramid and its temple at Chichen Itza rises some 30 m above the huge central plaza. It is flanked by various stone buildings and a huge ball court. Cities such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza were smaller than the Classic Period cities such as …

Triumph and Tragedy During the Mayan Classic Period

Driving northeast from the city of Flores in Guatemala it is hard to believe that dense and seemingly uninhabited rainforest once supported a largely agricultural landscape and innumerable human habitations. It is harder yet to imagine that some 1200 years ago the ruins of Tikal, empty and isolated today in the midst of a deep green forest, was once a thriving city of some 300,000 to 500,000 Mayans. In its day it rivaled in size and splendor the contemporary cities of Europe.  I traveled here as part of my Guggenheim research in early 2009. When Hernán Cortés first arrived on the shores of Lake Flores in 1540 he found a small Mayan Kingdom situated there. In fact, it was here in Guatemala that the last independent Mayan state made its stand against the Spanish in 1697 before at last being absorbed by the Hispanic kingdom of the New World. However, the Maya the Spanish encountered at Flores were not directly from Tikal, but were Itzan refugees from the Maya-Toltec cities of the southern Yucatan Peninsula. …

Egypt and the Nile 5 – Climate Change and an Uncertain Future

With drought in Ethiopia and East Africa comes famine in Egypt. Rainfall is sparse and cannot replace the water of river. The failure of the Nile can have profound impacts on a land with so many people dependent on one source of water. The Old Kingdom of Egypt ended at around 2200 BC – a period which experienced widespread drought in many parts of the Bronze Age world (See Syria Blog Entries). There may have been other issues promoting instability at this time, but there is evidence people lost faith in the divine abilities of the Pharaoh. The crown of Upper and Lower Egypt no longer represented a strong and unifying government and the country split into smaller satraps – this was the time of the First Intermediate Period. A time of extinguished central government and uncertainty. both contemporary carvings of famine and Ptolomaic era carvings provide evidence of severe drought and famine in Old Kingdom Egypt well before the collapse of the last dynasty. What does the future hold for Egypt in terms of …

Egypt and the Nile 4 – Control of the Nile

Egypt has always been at the mercy of the Nile. If the headwaters to the south in Ethiopia and East Africa experience drought than the floods which irrigate and replenish the soils fail and famine was the result. Since dynastic times temples along the river had gauges called Nilometers that allowed the priests to accurately gauge the height of the river and estimate the magnitude of the annual flooding. Word of the Nile’s height at the southern edges of the kingdom at Aswan could be quickly carried down river to Thebes and Memphis to inform Pharaoh. The Priests, and Pharaoh as the embodiment of the gods, were responsible for invoking divine intervention to stave off droughts. The god representing flood and fertility was called Hapi and offerings were made to curry his favor.  However, the Egyptian pantheon also had a god of drought and desert – Seth – the slayer of Osiris and a far more powerful figure in Egyptian religion. The Egyptian response to water resource challenges were not always passive. Evidence exists for …

Egypt and the Nile – 3 Life of the Common Person Then and Now

Egypt is one of the great early civilizations of the world. Owing to its arid climate and the use of stone to build its  massive burial pyramids, monumental statues, obelisks and temples it is also the best preserved of the early bronze age cultures in terms of its remaining buildings. At the time of Christ and the start of the Roman Empire some of these edifices were already 2000 years old and served as tourist attractions for the classical world. Although we know much of Egyptian funeral, religious and monumental structures, little remains of the ancient cities and villages where people actually lived. Take for example the great city of Memphis south of Cairo.  A complex of Old Kingdom pyramids and funeral temples lies today on the dry desert ridge just above the former site of Memphis. Almost nothing remains of the urban center itself. The reasons for the loss of the mundane urban and village structures lies partly in the use of adobe brick, the flooding and shifting of the Nile and the habit …

Egypt and the Nile 2 – Climate Change and Early Agriculture in Egypt

Surprisingly, agriculture came late to Egypt compared to Syria and Iraq which lay to the east. By 10,600 to 10,000 years ago (8600 to 8000 BC) agriculture had taken firm root in ancient Mesopotamia and adjacent regions in Near and Middle East. According to archaeologists from UCLA and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands agriculture did not arrive in Egypt until about 7200 years ago (5200 BC). The evidence for the earliest agriculture in Egypt comes from just west of Fayum Oasis. This massive agricultural region south of Cairo remains an important source of food for modern Egypt. On in the desert sands just west of current cultivated areas Dr. Willeke Wendrich from UCLA (a Co-leader of the project) and her colleagues have found evidence of grain cultivation and processing and domesticated animal use by Neolithic peoples. Today the stone implements and pottery of these peoples, their refuse piles of shell or bone and other traces are found on the surface and just under the sands of the desert.   Why did agriculture came so late to …

Egypt and the Nile – Then and Now Part 1

The country of Egypt is known throughout the world for its incredible history, richness of ancient monuments and stunning archaeological finds. It is also home to about 82 million people. One third of the active labor force remains employed in agriculture. Main crops today include grains, cotton, sugar cane and various fruits. However, it would be a disservice to think of Egypt in strictly historical or rural terms. It is the home of rapidly growing urban areas. The city of Cairo has a population of over 8 million people and the greater Cairo metropolis expands both up and down the lower Nile and outwards into the eastern and western deserts. Indeed the great pyramids at Giza are now surrounded by suburban neighborhoods of Cairo. The city of Cairo, with its sometimes overwhelmed infrastructure, environmental problems including significant air pollution and its deep divisions between rich and poor, is also one of the most exciting and cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East and the World at large. Given its large population and the importance of its …

Beyond Chaco Canyon

The build-up of Chaco Canyon extended over many centuries and seemed to reach a peak around 1000 years ago. Then, decline set in and by AD 1300 the great pueblos and the entire canyon itself was abandoned by its creators and inhabitants. Much speculation has been made on the causes of the Chaco abandonment. Factors that have been mentioned include drought and famine, disease due to malnutrition, warfare and cannibalism, environmental degradation that caused the loss of trees, soils and the downcutting of steams, and societal inbalances created by a stratified society of haves and have nots. It is known that the time of Chaco’s decline and abandonment coincided with a period of natural global warming and enhanced aridity in the Southwest. Not only might it have been generally drier, but seasonal patterns of precipitation may have changed and droughts become more prolonged. Given that the Chacoans had weathered earlier droughts, and developed the Chaco phenomenon in a generally arid environment it seems likely that the aridity of the 12th through 13th centuries may have …

Who Were the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of the Southwest

When Europeans first began to explore the American Southwest they found both native North American agricultural people and hunters and gathers. However, they also encountered in various desolate or uninhabited portions of the region the huge ruins of stone and adobe structures. Many such ruins contain round ceremonial chambers called kivas. In some cases the ruins seemed to dwarf the physical size of the existing agricultural pueblos. Fanciful explanations were constructed around these grand ruins. No one less the eminent geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt subscribed to the belief that the ancient pueblo ruins of the southwestern US were the works of the Aztecs themselves. In his 1810 map of New Spain von Humboldt ascribed pueblo ruins in modern day New Mexico to the Aztecs whom he thought had migrated south to the Valley of Mexico from an ancestral homeland in the Southwest. Another set of ruins located between modern Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona was called Montezuma’s Castle by American settlers in the 1860’s under the belief that the last Aztec emperor had been …

The Fremont Indians – Prehistoric Retreat of Agriculture in the American West

Scattered among the canyons, mesas and lake shorelines of northern Utah and adjacent areas of Colorado, Nevada and southern Idaho can be found evidence of an ancient agricultural people who inhabited and farmed the region for centuries before the arrival of Europeans – and then mysteriously disappeared. These native farmers, who raised crops such as corn (maize), squash and beans are referred to as the Fremont People by archaeologists. Exactly who they were and which native North American linguistic group they belonged to remains a mystery. They certainly did not refer to themselves as Fremonts – this name comes from the Fremont River region of Utah and is a modern designation applied to these lost people. From roughly AD 700 to AD 1300 the Fremont held sway over a large portion of the intermountain west. To their south were the Anasazi farmers of the Southwest. Elsewhere around the Fremont lived a number of different hunting and gathering cultures. Evidence of their presence can be seen in the ruins of stone and adobe villages and towers …