In the early 1980s I visited Chetumal, a coastal city on the Mexico-Belize border. A magazine had asked me to cover the intellectual ferment caused by the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics. In researching the article, the photographer Peter Menzel and I became intrigued by the then little-known site of Calakmul, whose existence had been first reported five decades before. Although it was the biggest of all Maya ruins, it had never felt an archaeologist’s trowel. Its temples and villas, enveloped in thick tropical forest, were as close to a lost city as we would ever be likely to see. Before visiting Calakmul, though, Peter wanted to photograph it from the air. Chetumal had the nearest airport, which was why we went there.


ABOVE: As late as the 1980s, the Maya city of Kaan (now Calakmul) was encased in vegetation (top). Excavations have now revealed the pyramids beneath the trees (the right-hand mound in the top photo is the pyramid at bottom), exemplifying the recent explosion of knowledge about the Maya.

The town was unpromising in those days. We arrived late in the night, and the only restaurant we could find served a single platter: octopus with pureed beef liver. I am, as a rule, a member of the Clean Plate Club. Looking at the rubbery white octopus chunks bobbing in the tarry mass of liver, I rejected an entire meal for the first time since childhood. Soon afterward the electricity went out everywhere in town. For that reason we did not discover until we retired that our hotel beds were full of little hungry creatures. I was peevish the next morning when we met our pilot.

At first we flew over Highway 186, which arrows west from Chetumal across the Maya heartland. Every so often the pilot tapped my shoulder and pointed to an anonymous, tree-covered hummock. “Ruinas,” he said. Otherwise there was little to report. After a while we turned south, toward the border with Guatemala. The Yucatán Peninsula grows wetter as one heads south. The vegetation beneath the plane quickly became thicker, lusher, higher, more aggressive.

All at once we came upon Calakmul. The city proper, built on a low ridge, had once housed as many as fifty thousand people and sprawled across an area as big as twenty-five square miles. (The city-state’s total population may have been 575,000.) The downtown area alone had six thousand masonry structures: homes, temples, palaces, and granaries, even an eighteen-foot-high defensive wall. Scattered through the neighborhoods was a network of reservoirs, many apparently stocked with fish. Thousands of acres of farmland extended beyond. Little of this was known then—I am quoting from later reports—and none of it was visible from the plane. From our vantage the only visual testament to Calakmul’s past majesty was its two great central pyramids, each wrapped to the shoulders in vegetation.

Peter asked the pilot to fly low circles around the pyramids while he put together the perfect match of light, lens, angle, and shutter speed. He swapped lenses and cameras and window views in a dozen different combinations. At a certain point, he asked, peering through the shutter, “¿Cuánta gasolina tenemos?” How much gas do we have?

The pilot squinted at the fuel gauge: three-quarters full. A puzzled look spread over his face. I leaned over to watch as he tapped the gauge’s foggy plastic cover with his forefinger. The needle plunged almost to empty—it had been pinned.

Peter put down his cameras.

Eventually the blood returned to our heads, permitting cerebration. We had to decide whether to take the shortest path to the airport, straight across the forest, or turn to the north and then fly east along Highway 186, which we could try to land on if we ran out of gas. The trade-off was that the highway route was so much longer that choosing it would greatly increase our chances of a forced touchdown. Soon we realized the decision boiled down to one question: How scary was the prospect of landing in the forest?

I recall looking down at the trees. They had engulfed the great buildings and were slowly ripping apart the soft limestone with their roots. Circling above the city, I had thought, Nobody will ever find out anything about this place. The forest is too overpowering. Calakmul’s inhabitants had cut a little divot into its flanks for their city, but now the vegetation, massive and indifferent, was smothering every trace of their existence. From the plane the trees seemed to march to the horizon without interruption.

We flew over the highway. I tried not to stare at the fuel gauge. Still, I couldn’t help noticing as, one after another, warning lights blinked on. The plane had so little gas that the engine quit a moment after our wheels hit the tarmac. When we rolled silently to a stop, the pilot leapt out and kissed the ground. I sat back and regarded Chetumal with new affection.

In the mid-1990s the Mexican government paved a road to the site, which is now the center of the 1.7-million-acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Aerial views of the ruins are now spectacular; archaeologists have cleared most of the central city. Along the way, contrary to my initial impression, they have managed to learn a great deal about Calakmul, the landscape it occupied, and the collapse that led to the forest’s return. To begin with, they deciphered Calakmul’s proper name: Kaan, the Kingdom of the Snake. Impressively, they learned it from the best possible source, the ancient Maya themselves.

Maya scribes wrote in codices made of folded fig-bark paper or deerskin. Unfortunately for posterity, the Spaniards destroyed all but four of these books. The rest of what remains are texts on monuments, murals, and pottery—about fifteen thousand samples of writing, according to one estimate. Piecing together events from these sources is like trying to understand the U.S. Civil War from the plaques on park statues: possible, but tricky. Combining literal interpretation with an understanding of context, epigraphers (decipherers of ancient writing) have spent the last thirty years hauling submerged chunks of Maya history to the surface. David Stuart, a Mayanist at Harvard, decocted the encounter between Chak Tok Ich’aak and the Teotihuacan expedition in 2000. And Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, respectively of University College London and the University of Bonn, first put the history of the great Mutal-Kaan war together in 1996.

Most of the stelae at Kaan were made from soft stone that has eroded too much to be readable. Martin and Grube thus had to rely on inscriptions at other sites that mention Kaan and its rulers. These are surprisingly numerous. Too numerous, in a way: archaeologists have turned up at least eleven versions of Kaan’s early dynastic history painted on big vases. Exasperatingly, none of the eleven tells exactly the same story. The chronological list of rulers differs on different lists, some lists do not include known kings, and some include kings who probably were mythological—as if a tally of English rulers matter-of-factly included King Arthur and his father, Uther Pen-dragon. The dates are inconsistent, too. Kaan’s origins may reach back as far as 400 B.C. But the city-state does not unambiguously enter the historical record until about 500 A.D., when it had a king named Yuknoom Ch’een. The city was already dominating its neighbors; in 546, Yuknoom Ch’een’s apparent successor supervised the coronation of a five-year-old monarch in nearby Naranjo.

This supervision, recorded on a stela erected seventy years afterward, is the first known example in Yucatán of a Mesoamerican specialty: the chaperoned coronation. For much of the last century most Mayanists believed that at its height—200 to 900 A.D., roughly speaking—the Maya realm was divided into a hugger-mugger of more or less equivalent city-states. Critics pointed out that this theory failed to account for an inconvenient fact: Kaan, Mutal, and a few other cities were much bigger and more imposing than their neighbors, and therefore, one would usually assume, more powerful. According to the skeptics, Maya society was divided into a small number of blocs, each controlled by a dominant city, each striving to achieve some semblance of empire.

Compelling evidence for this view did not emerge until the mid-1980s, when several epigraphers figured out that the Maya glyph ahaw, which means “sovereign” or “lord,” had a possessive form, y-ahaw, “his lord,” meaning a lord who “belongs” to another lord: that is, a vassal king. Another glyph, u-kahi, turned out to mean “by the action of.” They were only two words, but enough to make dozens of texts speak. In the stela, the five-year-old ahaw in Naranjo was crowned “by the action of” the ahaw of Kaan. Naranjo’s young king “belonged” to Kaan. (Naranjo is the name scientists gave to the city; its original name may have been Saal.)

“The political landscape of the Classic Maya resembles many in the Old World—Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy are worthy comparisons—where a sophisticated and widely shared culture flourished among perpetual division and conflict,” Martin and Grube wrote in Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000), their remarkable summary of the epigraphic discoveries of the last three decades. It was a “world criss-crossed by numerous patron-client relationships and family ties, in which major centers vied with one another in enmities that could endure for centuries.” As Martin put it to me, Maya civilization indeed bore striking similarities to that of ancient Greece. The Greeks were divided into numerous fractious communities, some of which were able to dominate others by threats of force, unequal alliance, or commerce. And just as the conflicted relationship among Athens and Sparta was a leitmotif of Greek life, so Maya society resounded for centuries with the echoes of the struggle between Mutal and Kaan.

Sometime before 561 A.D., a ruler known only as “Sky Witness” took the throne of Kaan. A major figure despite his obscurity, Sky Witness set out to destroy Mutal. The motive for his hatred is uncertain, though it may have been rooted in the invasion from Teotihuacan. The new rulers of Mutal had aggressively thrown their weight around and by Sky Witness’s time controlled as much as eight thousand square miles. (Mutal city itself had an estimated population of sixty thousand, plus many more in its hinterland.) Particularly important, the Teotihuacan-backed dynasty took over several outposts on the Usumacinta River system, Yucatán’s most important trade route. Shipments of luxury goods from faraway regions usually had to travel up or down the Usumacinta; Mutal’s ability to tax and supervise the trade must have been terribly vexing, even if it had little practical import. Sky Witness may have thought that Mutal was becoming a dangerous neighbor and decided to take preemptive action. Or he may have wanted to control the Usumacinta and its tributaries himself. A dynastic dispute may have been involved. Grube told me that he thought the kings of Kaan, never allied with Teotihuacan, may have wanted to stamp out pernicious foreign influences—xenophobia is a powerful motive in every culture. No matter what the motive, Sky Witness’s plan to dismantle Mutal was brilliant—in the short run, anyway. In the long run, it helped set in motion the Maya collapse.

Kaan and Mutal had a lot at stake. The Yucatán Peninsula is like a gigantic limestone wharf projecting into the Caribbean. Roughly speaking, the northwest-southeast line on which it joins the mainland runs through the middle of the Maya heartland. Despite receiving three to five feet of precipitation in an average year, this area is prone to drought. Almost all the rain falls during the May-to-December rainy season and rapidly sinks hundreds of feet into the porous limestone, from where it cannot easily be extracted. Little is available during the five hot, dry months between January and April. The region does have permanently water-filled swamps, sinkholes, and lakes, but often these are too salty to drink or use for irrigation. So toxic is the groundwater, a U.S.-Mexican research team remarked in 2002, that the Maya realm was “geochemically hostile” to urban colonization. Its occupation “more resembled settlement on the moon or Antarctica than most other terrestrial habitats.”

Most of the salt occurred in the sediments on the swamp bottoms. To make the water potable, the Maya laid a layer of crushed limestone atop the sediments, effectively paving over the salt. As the researchers noted, the work had to be done before the Maya could move in and set up their milpasand gardens. “Permanent, year-round populations could be established only in the presence of an anticipatory engineering of water supplies.” The Maya heartland, in other words, was a network of artificially habitable terrestrial islands.

As Maya numbers grew, so did the islands beneath them. North of Kaan, half a dozen small cities improved agricultural conditions by lifting up entire fields and carving out rain-retaining terraces on dry hillsides. Kaan itself dug out a series of reservoirs, established neighborhoods around each one, and linked the ensemble with roads and waterways. Central Mutal was ringed by a chain of seven reservoirs, with another central reservoir reserved for royalty. And so on.

Revamping the landscape both allowed Maya cities to expand and made them more vulnerable. Despite constant maintenance, erosion silted up reservoirs, hurricanes destroyed terraces, and weeds and sediment choked irrigation networks. Over time the Maya found themselves simultaneously maintaining existing systems and pushing out to cover past mistakes. If war damage made it impossible for a city’s inhabitants to keep up, they would be in trouble; island dwellers who wreck their homes have no place to move. One can speculate that the losers’ fear of having their backs to the wall generated the extraordinary tenacity of the Kaan-Mutal conflict.

Sky Witness’s strategy was to ring Mutal with a chain of client states and allies and then strangle it, boa constrictor–style. In this way Kaan would both acquire a dominant position in the Maya realm and destroy its enemy. The first step was to suborn Mutal’s most important vassal, the king of Oxwitza’ (now known as Caracol). With 115,000 people, Oxwitza’ was twice as populous as Mutal and controlled almost as much territory. Yet it had become Mutal’s vassal soon after Teotihuacan installed the new dynasty. No concrete evidence exists that the first event caused the second, but the coincidence in timing is hard to dismiss. Sky Witness seems to have divined or inspired resentment in Oxwitza’. The king of Oxwitza’ took the throne “by the action of” Mutal in 553 A.D. Within three years Sky Witness had persuaded the new ruler of Oxwitza’ to betray his masters.

Maya polities were not large enough to maintain standing armies; instead both Kaan and Oxwitza’ mustered short-term militiamen to fight wars. Wearing cotton armor and wooden helmets, brandishing lances, hatchets, and maces, and carrying great painted litters with effigies of their gods, the two militias marched on Mutal. Kaan is some sixty miles north of Mutal; Oxwitza’ is fifty miles south of it. The two cities planned to crush Mutal between them. They carefully chose the day of the attack. Maya priests tracked the movements of Venus, which they regarded as a powerful portent. Its day of emergence in the morning sky was considered an occasion on which warfare and violence was likely to be rewarded—an optimal day to attack a city. On April 29, 562, in what archaeologists call a Star Wars assault, the two celestially guided armies overran Mutal, sacked its precincts, and probably killed its king (the relevant glyphs are too worn to read).


Kaan and Mutal Battle to Control the Maya Heartland, 526–682 A.D.

The war between Kaan and Mutal lasted more than a century and consumed much of the Maya heartland. Kaan’s strategy was to surround Mutal and its subordinate city-states with a ring of enemies. By conquest, negotiation, and marriage alliance, Kaan succeeded in encircling its enemy—but not in winning the war.

Kaan did not directly occupy Mutal; victorious Maya cities rarely had the manpower to rule their rivals directly. Instead, in the by-now familiar hegemonic pattern, they tried to force the rulers of the vanquished state to become their vassals. If an enemy sovereign was slain, as apparently happened in Mutal, the conquerors often didn’t emplace a new one; kings were divine, and thus by definition irreplaceable. Instead the victorious force simply quit the scene, hoping that any remaining problems would disappear in the ensuing chaos. This strategy was partly successful in Mutal—not a single dated monument was erected in the city for a century. Because the city’s postattack rulers had (at best) distant connections to the slain legitimate king, they struggled for decades to get on their feet. Unhappily for Kaan, they eventually did it.

The agent for Mutal’s return was its king, Nuun Ujol Chaak. Taking the helm of the city in 620 A.D., he was as determined to reestablish his city’s former glory as Kaan’s rulers were to prevent it. He suborned Kaan’s eastern neighbor, Naranjo, which attacked Mutal’s former ally, Oxwitza’. The ensuing conflict spiraled out to involve the entire center of the Maya realm. Decades of conflict, including a long civil war in Mutal, led to the formation of two large blocs, one dominated by Mutal, the other by Kaan. As cities within the blocs traded attacks with each other, half a dozen cities ended up in ruins, including Naranjo, Oxwitza’, Mutal, and Kaan. The story was not revealed in full until 2001, when a storm uprooted a tree in the ruin of Dos Pilas, a Mutal outpost. In the hole from its root ball archaeologists discovered a set of steps carved with the biography of B’alaj Chan K’awiil, a younger brother or half brother to Mutal’s dynasty-restoring king, Nuun Ujol Chaak. As deciphered by the epigrapher Stanley Guenter, the staircase and associated monuments reveal the turbulent life of a great scalawag who spent his life alternately running from the armies of Kaan and Mutal and trying to set them against each other.

Eventually an army under Nuun Ujol Chaak met the forces of Kaan on April 30, 679. Maya battles rarely involved massive direct engagements. This was an exception. In an unusual excursion into the high-flown, the inscriptions on the stairway apostrophized the gore: “the blood was pooled and the skulls of the Mutal people were piled into mountains.” B’alaj Chan K’awiil was carried into battle in the guise of the god Ik’ Sip, a deity with a black-painted face. In this way he acquired its supernatural power. The technique worked, according to the stairway: “B’alaj Chan K’awiil brought down the spears and shields of Nuun Ujol Chaak.” Having killed his brother, the vindicated B’alaj Chan K’awiil took the throne of Mutal.

In a celebration, B’alaj Chan K’awiil joined the rulers of Kaan in a joyous ceremonial dance on May 10, 682. But even as he danced with his master, a counterrevolutionary coup in Mutal placed Nuun Ujol Chaak’s son onto the throne, from where he quickly became a problem. On August 5, 695, Kaan soldiers once again went into battle against Mutal. Bright with banners, obsidian blades gleaming in the sun, the army advanced on the long-term enemy it had routed so many times before—and was utterly defeated. In a psychological blow, Mutal captured the effigy of a Kaan patron deity—an enormous supernatural jaguar—that its army carried into battle. A month later, in a mocking ceremonial pageant, the king of Mutal paraded around with the effigy strapped to the back of his palanquin.


Maya “books” consisted of painted bark folded accordion-style into sheaves known as codexes. Time and the Spanish destroyed all but four codexes, and even those are fragmentary (above, a detail from the Paris codex, somewhat reconstructed; right, a piece of the Grolier codex).


Kaan’s loss marks the onset of the Maya collapse. Kaan never recovered from its defeat; Mutal lasted another century before it, too, sank into oblivion. Between 800 and 830 A.D., most of the main dynasties fell; cities winked out throughout the Maya heartland. Mutal’s last carved inscription dates to 869; soon after, its great public spaces were filled with squatters. In the next hundred years, the population of most southern areas declined by at least three-quarters.

The disaster was as much cultural as demographic; the Maya continued to exist by the million, but their central cities did not. Morley, the Harvard archaeologist, documented the cultural disintegration when he discovered that Maya inscriptions with Long Count dates rise steadily in number from the first known example, at Mutal in 292 A.D.; peak in about 790; and cease altogether in 909. The decline tracks the Maya priesthood’s steady loss of the scientific expertise necessary to maintain its complex calendars.

The fall has been laid at the door of overpopulation, overuse of natural resources, and drought. It is true that the Maya were numerous; archaeologists agree that more people lived in the heartland in 800 A.D. than today. And the Maya indeed had stretched the meager productive capacity of their homeland. The evidence for drought is compelling, too. Four independent lines of evidence—ethnohistoric data; correlations between Yucatán rainfall and measured temperatures in western Europe; measurements of oxygen variants in lake sediments associated with drought; and studies of titanium levels in the Caribbean floor, which are linked to rainfall—indicate that the Maya heartland was hit by a severe drought at about the time of its collapse. Water levels receded so deeply, the archaeologist Richardson Gill argued in 2000, that “starvation and thirst” killed millions of Maya. “There was nothing they could do. There was nowhere they could go. Their whole world, as they knew it, was in the throes of a burning, searing, brutal drought…. There was nothing to eat. Their water reservoirs were depleted, and there was nothing to drink.”

The image is searing: a profligate human swarm unable to overcome the anger of Nature. Yet Gill’s critics dismissed it. Turner, the Clark geographer, was skeptical about the evidence for the killer drought. But even if it happened, he told me, “The entire Maya florescence took place during a prolonged dry period.” Because they had spent centuries managing scarce water supplies, he thought it unlikely that they would have fallen quick victim to drought.

Moreover, the collapse did not occur in the pattern one would expect if drought were the cause: in general, the wetter southern cities fell first and hardest. Meanwhile, northern cities like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Coba not only survived the dearth of rain, they prospered. In the north, in fact, the areas with the poorest natural endowments and the greatest susceptibility to drought were the most populous and successful. “How and why, then,” asked Bruce H. Dahlin, an archaeologist at Howard University, “did the onset of prolonged drought conditions simultaneously produce a disaster in the southern and central lowlands—where one would least expect it—and continued growth and development in the north, again where one would least expect it?”

Dahlin argued in 2002 that Chichén Itzá had adapted to the drought by instituting “sweeping economic, military, political, and religious changes.” Previous Maya states had been run by all-powerful monarchs who embodied the religion and monopolized trade. Almost all public announcements and ceremonies centered on the figure of the paramount ruler; in the stelae that recount royal deeds, the only other characters are, almost always, the king’s family, other kings, and supernatural figures. Beginning in the late ninth or early tenth century A.D., public monuments in Chichén Itzá deemphasized the king, changing from official narratives of regal actions to generalized, nontextual images of religion, commerce, and war.

In the new regime, economic power passed to a new class of people: merchants who exchanged salt, chocolate, and cotton from Chichén Itzá for a host of goods from elsewhere in Mesoamerica. In previous centuries trade focused on symbolic goods that directly engaged the king, such as jewelry for the royal family. During the drought, something like markets emerged. Dahlins calculated that the evaporation pans outside a coastal satellite of Chichén Itzá would have produced at least three thousand tons of salt for export every year; in return, the Maya acquired tons of obsidian for blades, semiprecious stones for jewelry, volcanic ash for tempering pottery, and, most important, maize. Like Japan, which exports consumer electronics and imports beef from the United States and wheat from Australia, Chichén Itzá apparently traded its way through the drought.

The contrast between north and south is striking—and instructive. The obvious difference between them was the century and a half of large-scale warfare in the south. Both portions of the Maya realm depended on artificial landscapes that required constant attention. But only in the south did the Maya elite, entranced by visions of its own glory, take its hands off the switch. Drought indeed stressed the system, but the societal disintegration in the south was due not to surpassing inherent ecological limits but the political failure to find solutions. In our day the Soviet Union disintegrated after drought caused a series of bad harvests in the 1970s and 1980s, but nobody argues that climate ended Communist rule. Similarly, one should grant the Maya the dignity of assigning them responsibility for their failures as well as their successes.

Cahokia and the Maya, fire and maize: all exemplify the new view of indigenous impacts on the environment. When scholars first increased their estimates of Indians’ ecological management they met with considerable resistance, especially from ecologists and environmentalists. The disagreement, which has ramifying political implications, is encapsulated by Amazonia, the subject to which I will now turn. In recent years a growing number of researchers has argued that Indian societies there had enormous environmental impacts. Like the landscapes of Cahokia and the Maya heartland, some anthropologists say, the great Amazon forest is also a cultural artifact—that is, an artificial object.

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