Are We Dumber Than Ancient Mayans?

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There has been was a bit of news

about a new 2,000-year climate record from the Yok Balum Cave in

Belize that, according to a press release "shows how Maya

political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate

change." I was pleased to see an article about it even made it

into my local newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal.

But after reading it I got to thinking

about a recent writing assignment

I got from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) on the demise of the classic

Mayan civilization. One of the take home messages I got from talking

with the SFI folks is that nothing is ever so simple as some of the

press on this new climate record suggests. These researchers are

experts at modeling complex adaptive systems of all kinds – from

cells to civilizations. They love the stuff that gives the rest of us

headaches: big messy complicated systems that change a lot and have

way too many variables. It's like candy to them.

VIDEO: Monitoring Climate Change

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Their take on the demise of the Classic

Maya civilization in the Central Maya Lowlands in the ninth century

A.D. — reported in the August 20, 2012, Proceedings of the National Academy of

Science — is that while climate was important, it was not the only

factor.

“There is no monolithic period of collapse, but a lot of

variability,” co-author and President of the Santa Fe Institute

Jerry Sabloff told me. “What we see are many variable patterns. The only way to

explain the variability is to take a complex systems view.”

Sabloff and Arizona State University geographer B.

L. Turner wove together a complex, data-rich history of Classic Maya

agricultural practices and the demands on ecosystem services that

stressed the environment and made it vulnerable for trouble when one

particular drought hit.

ANALYSIS: Mayans Pissed Off Over Doomsday 'Deceit'

In other words, maybe the drought

wouldn't have done it if the Maya had managed some other things

differently. Of course, the Classic Maya probably had limited ability to assess

the long-term effects of their farming practices and likewise perhaps had no

reason to believe the climate could change so dramatically. It was

just bad luck, you might say.

Which begs the question: Now that we have the Classic Mayan's example to learn from, along with all sorts of other advanced scientific understanding of human effects on the planet, can we do any better? Absolutely! But if for some reason we don't, virtuous "bad luck" will be not our excuse.

Photo Credit: Douglas Kennett/Penn State