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Environments of the Maya collapse: A zooarchaeological perspective from the Petexbatun

Environments of the Maya collapse: A zooarchaeological perspective from the Petexbatun
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   81  6Environments of the Maya Collapse   A Zooarchaeological Perspective from the Petexbatún  Kitty F. Emery    Florida Museum of Natural History    The “collapse” of Classic Maya social and political systems around  A   .   D   . 800 is a topic of enduring fascination for Maya archaeologists. Environmental change continues to beascribed primacy in the search for causal agents in both this and other episodes of culturaldisjunction. This research from the Petexbatún region of the Guatemalan Petén combinestraditional and nontraditional zooarchaeological methods to investigate evidence for the dra-matic environmental changes hypothetically associated with the period of regional abandon-ment in the Petexbatún. The results of ecosystem fidelity analysis of the Petexbatún faunalassemblage, as well as isotopic chemical studies of the remains of crop-feeding deer, indicatethat in this area, at least, there is no evidence that an environmental failure was causative for political collapse.  E   NVIRONMENTAL  D   EGRADATION  : C    AUSAL  M   ECHANISM   IN   THE  M    AYA   C   OLLAPSE   From the environmental determinism of culturehistory through the systems models of proces-sual archaeology, the environment has often been cast in the role of causal mechanism in thesrcin, growth, and decline of civilizations.Despite a growing archaeological interest insocial, economic, and political phenomena asmotivators of culture change, prime importanceis still frequently ascribed to environmental pat-terning. In Mesoamerican archaeology thisenduring interest in environmental precursorsis evident in the many current models of thegrowth and decline of Maya civilization thatstress changing environmental conditions, par-ticularly those that result from variability inland use and climate. The undercurrent of envi-ronmental causality is perhaps most apparent inthe ongoing debate over the “collapse” of Mayasociety at the end of the ninth century A   .   D   .(Cooke 1931; Culbert 1973, 1977, 1988; Gill 2000;Hodell et al. 2000; Johnston et al. 2001; Santleyet al. 1986). The Maya “collapse” marks the endof the Classic period and is characterized atmany sites by a cessation in the construction of monumental architecture and in the erection of celebratory monuments and dedications thatindicate at the least a dramatic change in thepolitical sphere. The abandonment of manyurban centers has been interpreted as evidenceof large-scale population demise (e.g., Gill 2000;Sanders and Webster 1994) or (more likely) as ageneralized pattern of out-migration and reset-tlement (e.g. Johnston et al. 2001). Although the true nature of this societal dis-continuity and the range of its impact over bothspace and time continue to be questioned, it isclear that the period between A   .   D   . 750 and 900was one of political turmoil, economic disrup-tion, population movement, and often abandon-ment of political centers. No single or unicausalmodel will suffice to explain a societal change of this complexity and magnitude, but most recenttheoretical reconstructions continue to stress anunderlying environmental cause for the socialand political upheaval.  K. F. E   MERY  82   1   The generalized model hypothesizes thatincreasing human population sizes, combinedwith growing demands for subsistence and sta-tus goods for a large elite class of nonproducers,resulted in the unsustainable use of naturalresources. The requirement for more agriculturalproducts led to both expansion of agriculturalfields and intensification of agricultural produc-tion. Whereas some argue that these factors ledinexorably to deforestation and the eventual lossof soil fertility (e.g., Abrams et al. 1996; Culbert1988; Sanders and Webster 1994), others suggestthat this pattern was exacerbated by a coincidentand severe long-term drought (e.g., Curtis et al.1998; Hodell et al. 2000).Simultaneous with the pressure on both theflora and the soils of the rainforest, an increasingdemand for dietary protein is hypothesized tohave resulted in both generalized and selectiveoverhunting of an already dispersed tropicalfauna (Pohl 1990). Unsustainable hunting prac-tices combined with severe habitat reductionthrough deforestation to cause a failure in animalpopulation regeneration. In this model the finaloutcome of the unsustained use of the tropicalflora and fauna was dietary insufficiency and thecollapse of the complex Maya political and reli-gious systems (Culbert 1988; Santley et al. 1986).The model of environmental failure has beentested and retested over the past decades, butfew archaeological materials are as effective asanimal remains at broaching the complex issueof environmental change. The diverse tech-niques of zooarchaeology allow us to examinefaunal remains as both artifact and ecofact—as adirect measure of use or as an indirect indicationof wider ecological and social patterning. Zooar-chaeology is by nature a conjunctive science,and its most robust research and concrete con-clusions are achieved through the use of multi-ple perspectives and the creation of overlappingresults. Its multidisciplinary methods and broadperspective make it effective in tackling sophisti-cated theoretical questions like those that sur-round the Maya collapse. In this analysis I use the zooarchaeologicalremains recovered during the excavation of sites in the Petexbatún region of Guatemala totest the model of environmental failure and itspotential for causality in the specific case of thePetexbatún polity (Figure 6.1). The Petexbatúnfaunal remains can be used effectively to exam-ine the evidence for dramatic changes in thetropical rainforest, either as a result of unsus-tainable deforestation and expansion of agricul-tural production or as a result of progressivedesiccation during a long-term drought.   1   Both of these environmental failure scenariosare ecosystem models that can be tested usingzooarchaeological remains as indicators of envi-ronmental patterning. The processes of environ-mental change, caused either by human activityor by climatic change, will have measurableeffects on the animal populations used by theMaya. Both drought and agriculture/clearingwill cause significant shifts in plant communities by removing canopy forest flora and increasingopen spaces (either in the form of agriculturalfields or pioneering flora such as savanna grassesthat thrive in such gaps). Changes in the plantcommunities have indirect impacts on the rain-forest animals, in some cases diminishing orincreasing their available habitats, in other casescausing shifts in their dietary regimes that can bemeasured in their bony remains. Traditional measures of ecosystem-alliedspecies frequencies and population and com-munity statistics are combined with isotopic bone chemistry to test for the ecological shiftsthat would signal environmental degradationon the scale suggested by models of environ-mental causality for the Maya collapse.  H   ISTORY    OF   THE  P   ETEXBATÚN  R    EGION   Between 1990 and 1997, as the zooarchaeologistfor the Petexbatún Regional ArchaeologicalProject, I analyzed a large collection of animalremains recovered from the various surface andcave sites of this region of the Petén of Guate-mala (Emery 1997). The Petexbatún RegionalArchaeological Project, codirected by ArthurDemarest of Vanderbilt University and JuanAntonio Valdes of the Universidad de San   6. E   NVIRONMENTS   OF   THE  M    AYA   C   OLLAPSE 83 GULF OF MEXICOCARIBBEAN SEAPACIFIC OCEAN  HONDURASBELIZE YUCATÁNCHIAPAS GUATEMALA PETÉN EL SALVADOR Río Mo tagua R ío Pasión R Ío San P edro    R   í  o    H  o   n  d  o R  í   o  U  s  u  m  a  c  i  n  t  a     R  í o   C  h  i  x o  y   R í o   U  l ú a   R  í o  C  h a m e  l e c ó n R  í   o  G  r  i   j  a  l  v  a   Lago de Izabal  Lago Petén Itzá         N      e      w        R        i      v      e      r Lago At itlánLago Yojoa    B  e   l   i  z  e    R   i   v  e  r R       í        o      C        o      m      a         y      a        g      u      a       00100100 200 km200 miles TIKAL •• • SEIBALPETEXBATÚN •  ALTAR DE SACRIFICIOS BELOW: Figure 6.1. Map of the Mayaarea with sites mentioned in thechapter. LEFT: Inset: Petexbatún region,Pasión drainage, Petén (modifiedfrom Mathews and Willey 1991).   K. F. E   MERY  84   Carlos, was a multidisciplinary effort focusedon reconstructing the cultural and environmen-tal patterns of the final days of the Petexbatúnsites (Demarest 1996, 1997). Archaeological and epigraphic research bythe Petexbatún team provides a detailed historyof occupation in this region (Demarest 1997;Foias and Bishop 1997; Houston 1993). ThePetexbatún was first settled during the Preclas-sic period but was most densely populated dur-ing the Late Classic period, a time of intensepolitical activity under the joint control of theruling elite of the two largest sites, Dos Pilas andAguateca. The core of the region includes fivemajor sites (Dos Pilas, Arroyo de Piedra, Tama-rindito, Punta de Chimino, and Aguateca), aswell as a variety of smaller communities, but atits peak the polity may have extended south tothe site of Cancuen, east to Seibal, and north toLa Amelia (see Figure 6.1). At the Petexbatúnsites the “collapse” event was abrupt and early.Construction of defensive walls, ditches, andother fortifications at most of the Petexbatúnsites was followed immediately by the disap-pearance of the ruling elite and a widespreadreduction in population (Demarest et al. 1997;Foias and Bishop 1997).In this region the environmental collapsemodel has a more specific variant. The erectionof defensive structures at all of the Petexbatúnsites and the eventual destruction of at least onesite (Aguateca) by burning (Inomata 1997) areclear evidence for political upheaval. Demarest(1990, 1997) has suggested that in this region theLate Classic Petexbatún policy of territorial ac-quisition and competition for limited resourcescaused undue pressure on the Petexbatún envi-ronments and resulted in their eventual overuseand destruction. According to this model warfarewas both cause and symptom of the dramatic en-vironmental degradation that eventually causedthe abandonment of the Petexbatún region.However, other lines of inquiry (Dunning andBeach 1994; Dunning et al. 1997; Dunning et al.1998; Wright 1997a, 1997b), including the zooar-chaeological evidence presented here, suggestthat despite the clearly dysfunctional nature of the political system in the region, there is no evi-dence for environmental destruction as eithercause or consequence.  T   HE  P   ETEXBATÚN   A    SSEMBLAGE   The Petexbatún zooarchaeological assemblageconsisted of more than 20,000 remains of bothvertebrates and invertebrates. The remains wererecovered from a wide variety of archaeologicaldeposits, including elite and nonelite, occupa-tion and nonoccupation, ritual and secular loci,spanning a period of almost a thousand years of occupation. The size and diversity of the Petex- batún faunal collection, in combination with thevaluable archaeological and ecological data fromthe Petexbatún project, allowed me to use newmethods to evaluate the various archaeologicalinterpretations of the history of this period in thePetexbatún and elsewhere. The faunal remains recovered by the Petex- batún project were generally trowel excavatedexcept on occupation surfaces or in specialdeposits when the remains were recovered byscreening (1/4”). Tests of relative recovery inscreened and unscreened deposits indicaterecovery was complete using trowel excava-tion. This suggests, as well, that soil conditionswere too poor to permit the preservation of small or fragile remains. I analyzed remainsusing comparative material from the region, aswell as collections housed at the Royal OntarioMuseum in Canada, and relevant illustratedguides. MNI frequencies, presented here, werecalculated using element side pairs matched byage and sex. The results of basic analysis of species fre-quencies emphasize the importance of a fewtaxa in the Petexbatún assemblage. Molluscs arevery common in the assemblages, both as di-etary species and for use in artifact manufacture.Of the vertebrates, though, the dominant specieswere deer, turtles, dogs, agoutis, and peccaries.These basic counts are presented here as a totalfor all chronological periods (Table 6.1). Detailsof the zooarchaeological analysis are providedin other publications (Emery 1997), and thischapter will concentrate on secondary analysesof the base data.   6. E   NVIRONMENTS   OF   THE  M    AYA   C   OLLAPSE 85 Table 6.1. Petexbatún Animal Taxa Presented for the Entire Occupational Period Taxonomy% MNICommon NameDiversity Measures Philander opossum 0.09Gray 4-eyed opossumTotal MNI = 1,117Sirenia/Perissodactyla0.10Manatee/tapir# taxa (s)45 Procyon lotor 0.13RaccoonDominance1.95Brachyura0.18CrabRichness (s-1/logN)44.86 Didelphis marsupialis 0.18Virginia opossumEvenness (variance)2,520.29 Serpentes 0.18SnakesHeterogeneity (N*(N-1)/ ∑ n(n-1))8.90Sciuridae0.20Squirrels Crax rubra 0.21Curassow Tapirus bairdii 0.21Tapir Sylvilagus  sp.0.27Rabbit Lepisosteiformes 0.32GarDasyatidae/Myliobatidae0.36RaysRanidae/Bufonidae0.47Ranidae (0.34)Frogs Bufo marinus  (0.13)Marine toad Urcyon cineoargenteus 0.48Gray foxCrocodylidae0.63CrocodilesIntrusives0.85  Homo sapiens sapiens  (0.31) Neocyclotus dysoni  (0.09)  Helicina amoena (0.45)cf. Petenia splendida 0.96Blanco (cichlid fish)Ictaluridae/Pimelodidae0.96Catfish Dasypus novemcinctus 0.98Armadillo  Meleagris ocellata 1.23TurkeyRodentia, small1.48Muridae (1.09)Rats and miceGeomyidae (0.39)Pocket gophers Dasyprocta punctata 1.81Agouti  Agouti paca 2.34Paca  Mazama americana 3.17Brocket deerTayassuidae3.55PeccariesFelidae5.26Cats Panthera onca  (2.72)JaguarFelidae, intermediate (0.90)cf. Ocelot, jaguarundiFelidae, small (1.64)cf. Margay Canis familiaris 5.46Dog   Continued on next page
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