Lessons to Be Learned from The Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed at San Diego Natural History Museum

by on June 19, 2015 · 0 comments

in California, Culture, History, San Diego

mayan imageBy Jeeni Criscenzo / San Diego Free Press

I spent a recent Sunday afternoon exploring the new exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed.

Being somewhat of an aficionado of Maya studies, due to the considerable research I did while writing the novel, Place of Mirrors , I had tacked the announcement for this event to my calendar with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed! This exhibit was thorough, interesting and respectful of the Maya culture, both past and present.

Our understanding of this ancient culture, that had a written language, accurate calendrics, a numeric system that included zero, and impressive architectural feats, has progressed significantly in the 20 years since I dug through archaeological texts looking for the humanity in the artifacts. I highly recommend this exhibit and suggest you allow a few hours to savor it.

It’s a relief to be safely beyond the day that some claimed the Maya predicted would be the end of the world. I was getting tired of explaining that the Maya had mastered the art of defining cycles, not determining end times. December 21, 2012 was no different than 12 o’clock on our watch – it was just the completion of a cycle.

Unfortunately for the Maya, they didn’t predict the calamities that would result in the abandonment of their major cities in the lowlands between 800 and 900 AD. That’s ironic, given that it was their mastery of astrological observations and calculations that had facilitated the rise to their luminous civilization.

The ability to determine the precise time to plant, just prior to rainy season (when the Pleiades sets in the evening sky) was critical to their agricultural success. More so, being able to predict astonishing astronomical events, such as a solar eclipse, would certainly have lent credibility to one’s claim to having an inside connection with the gods thus legitimatizing your claim to kingship. But for all of their prophetic abilities, science is now indicating that the Maya literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Studies show that it was severe drought, aggravated by massive deforestation, which precipitated the undoing of one of humanity’s most advanced civilizations.

According to one display at the exhibit, the Maya would have had to cut down 1,000 acres of trees to fuel the fires necessary to cook the lime plaster they would have needed to stucco just one of their large structures. Of course, as time went on, all of those royal Maya offspring needed their own impressive temples or even an entire cultural center. That’s a lot of trees! Even as the rain stopped pouring they continued to build bigger and more magnificent pyramids, and plazas and palaces.

Given their skill with recognizing and calculating patterns, I can just imagine the greatest ancient Maya astronomers, in whatever spirit form they are currently enjoying, banging their fists on that wall that separates them from us, screaming, “Look! Look! It’s happening again!”

Maybe they were occupying an empty seat on June 9th, when USD hosted a conversation with Gov. Jerry Brown about the worst drought California has experienced in 150 years. They would have been nodding their spirit heads enthusiastically when Gov. Brown explained that climate change “is the radical disruption of the age-old historic pattern of climate.”

I’ve seen the repercussions of unpredictable climate in my own vegetable garden. I have tomato and pepper plants from last season still bearing fruit. Not a bad thing, you might say, but my winter crops: broccoli, cabbage, peas etc. never amounted to a hill of beans (as they would say in garden-speak). They went to seed before I ever got a decent head of broccoli, or anything else. If I had to depend on my garden to feed my family, we would all have gotten nice and trim this winter.

But beyond knowing when to plant what, is the bigger issue of watering my garden. We are now being told to cut back watering to two days a week. I tried to explain to my plants that we all have to make sacrifices. They responded by wilting. Fortunately I have my washing machine hooked up to empty into my garden. And I rigged up a big garbage can to collect my dish rinse water. That should get my garden through the summer. But what if this drought is the new normal?

Gov. Brown looked at his young audience during that interview and said, “The drought is just a tiny, tiny foretaste of what’s to come and that’s why we have to make use of this to respond in a very creative, thoughtful way.” The camera panned to the faces of the college students in the audience. My heart ached for them.

The Maya abandoned their cities and many relocated to the northern Yucatan and carried on for another 500 years before the Spaniards arrived. Seven million Maya people live in Central America and Mexico today. But where will our young people migrate to when the whole planet is reeling in the throes of climate change?

What will their world look like 500 years from now? We can look at all the times in history that civilizations have collapsed, put we are a global civilization now. Where is the prototype for this collapse? Indeed, we must respond in a creative and thoughtful way.

Jeeni Criscenzo is a San Diego advocate for homeless women and families. In 2010 she founded Amikas, a non-profit that works to house homeless women and children, particularly veteran women. In 2006 she was the Democratic candidate for the 49th Congressional District, running against Darrell Issa.

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