By Charles Fenyvesi

Article Provided by Michael Campbell
October 30, 1995

Even grave robbers, the pesky nemeses of the mighty, have avoided the Guatemalan rain forest of Petexbatun, once the heartland of the Mayas. But for the past six years, an unusually large research team has penetrated the dense jungle haunted by jaguars and poisonous snakes, as well as guerrillas, to study the mystery: Why did this amazingly inventive civilization exit from history with the abruptness of a tropical sunset?

The question has been debated since 1839, when machete-wielding natives hired by New Yorker John Stephens slashed their way through another part of the rain forest and found superbly crafted pyramids, palaces and serpent-shaped hieroglyphics revealing an amazingly precise calendar. Many theories have been advanced for the ruination: foreign invasion, population explosion, epidemics and other catastrophes.

Now, after a study of some 200 sites, the multidisciplinary team--45 scientists including archaeologists, zoologists and nutritionists--will reveal this week at a conference at the University of California that the explanation is very familiar. ``The Mayas paid a terrible price for internecine war waged in the pursuit of elite wealth and power,'' says Vanderbilt University archaeology Prof. Arthur Demarest, who directed the project. ``They thrived only as long as their warfare was limited and did not disrupt the traditional economic and ecological systems.'' The study suggests that the Maya elite committed the equivalent of collective suicide in the ninth century--at the time Charlemagne united Western Europe.

The explanation is surprising because in the preceding millennium, Mayas excelled as warriors of sportsmanlike self-restraint. During the Maya golden age--from 300 to 700 A.D.--the nobles of adjacent city-states engaged in what Demarest calls ``almost continual warfare.'' They fought without harming agriculture or trade because classic Maya warriors did not lay long sieges that would have drained the economy. And their rules of engagement spared civilians. Demarest suspects even a ban on attacks on villages and fields, since up to the eighth century no fortifications were built to shield them.

The memorable image from the work of Demarest's team is that of the Maya warrior--more a samurai taking orders from a master than a European knight- errant making a living by violence. His life was a bloody sport: raiding other Maya cities to capture prisoners who were dragooned to the raider's home base and handed over to its priests. His victory settled dynastic feuds and decided who was paramount to whom.

But the key objective was the sacrifice of the captives during an elaborate theatrical spectacle that marked the Mayas' high holy days. Mayas believed the higher the rank of the captives, the more their gods appreciated the sacrifice. And the gods especially liked blood from the genitals of men and the tongues and lips of women.

Dressed in elaborate attire designed for show rather than combat, the warriors fought with obsolete weapons such as spears and clubs and seldom annexed the territories they invaded. Mayas turned war into a ritual that did not affect their trade in quetzal feathers and obsidian blades, exchanges of artisans and scribes, adherence to the same canons in art and architecture and visits during royal births, marriages and coronations.

What, then, changed? The part of the Vanderbilt study bound to stir controversy is the report that there is no evidence of foreign invasions, epidemics, natural catastrophes or climate change that could have destroyed the civilization. Even more significant is the finding that the Mayas raised enough food on the thin topsoil of the rain forest. Nutritionists detected no sign that Mayas were undernourished. To the contrary, the scholars concluded that, amazingly, Maya farmers produced bumper crops feeding a large and constantly growing population without disrupting the fragile ecological balance. They mimicked the diversity of the ecosystem, building terraces and applying a range of techniques on small plots under tall trees, rather than focusing on a monoculture on large cleared areas.

Demarest's team argues that the Maya decline began in the mid-700s. With the proliferation of the rulers' marriages for the sake of dynastic alliances, cadet lineages kept branching off. Some royal sons left home to found new, rival cities; others stayed to press claims to their inheritance. As the elite grew in number, they demanded more luxury imports from other kingdoms, such as jade jewelry, and fought more wars to take home larger and larger piles of booty. Fighting got out of hand, disrupting trade and decimating craftsmen and farmers. The raids escalated into ceaseless civil war, with bands from splinter states burning fields and pillaging cities and villages and massacring civilians until a mere 10 percent of the population was left. ``Until this study, scholars did not realize the importance of the shift from ritual to endemic warfare,'' says Ron Bishop, a senior archaeologist from the Smithsonian Institution, who worked on the project.

Demarest traces the beginning of the end of Maya civilization to 761 and the siege of the royal palace in the city of Dos Pilas. Once the hub of a loose network of city-states scattered over 1,500 square miles, Dos Pilas was attacked by men from the nearby city of Tamarindito. The hastily erected defensive walls--which included carved stones ripped from temples and palaces--were breached. A pit containing 13 heads of men between 18 and 35 suggests that some survivors were executed. Eight days later--all the critical dates were fastidiously carved into stone--the victors held ``a termination ceremony.'' They toppled the king's limestone throne and knocked down the temple and the steles boasting of past victories.

Some of the nobles fled to nearby Aguateca, a natural fortress surrounded by a deep chasm. For 40 years the refugees held out, protecting their crops behind palisades, but were eventually overrun. The invaders sprang a surprise, as evidenced by items such as a scribe's paint and grinding stones found scattered in his workshop. By 800, Aguateca was a ghost town.

In another case, the Punta de Chimino peninsula was cut off from the mainland by the excavation of three concentric moats and walls, with the innermost ring 40 feet deep and cut into solid limestone bedrock. Scholars were impressed that the labor invested in the massive defenses was several times the labor required to erect all the buildings. ``Such a defense outlay is simply not sustainable,'' says Demarest.

After 820, the Mayas abandoned the Petexbatun forest where for more than a millennium they built city after city. For reasons scholars have not been able to explain, Mayas have never returned to the cradle of their civilization. These days they live scattered across the Guatemalan lowlands, as well as Mexico, Belize and Honduras. And they have lost the memory of their past grandeur as well as that of the apocalypse. Now, North American scholars are the ones who teach a few of them to read the hieroglyphics invented by their ancestors, the earliest writing system in the New World.

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