The Mayan refers to a group of communities who had similar cultures and lived in Mesoamerica and specifically in the Yucatan peninsular. The Classical period in this question lasted from 250AD to 900AD. The Yucatan peninsular had a vast landscape with good water catchments areas that could support agriculture. At the onset of this period the Mayan had a superb relationship with their environment and agricultural activities raised enough resources for the society. With time, things changed and the civilization collapsed. The collapse of this civilization is related to development of agriculture in this region, and the events that led to the collapse will be illuminated in the discussion section.
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The Maya were mainly agrarians and they survived on food crops such as maize, beans, cotton, squash and cocoa. This food crops were supplement by livestock products which were domesticated at that time. Ramlogan (2004, p. 6) notes that ‘the Mayan domesticated dogs and turkeys.’ Turkeys were slaughtered and made up a large part of the diet of the Mayan. Initially the Mayan maintained their farming exercises through the slash and burning method.
Slash and burning methods involves clearing a virgin land through burning all the vegetation cover in the land. The ash that is derived from this process served as a source of fertilizer that enriched the soil. Enriched soil could support food crops for a long period and yields were high. “New world” p. 2 suggests that apart from slush and burning method ‘soils were enriched through cleaning, irrigation, and terracing.’
After the soils are exhausted a field is left lying fallow for a long period in order to regain fertility. During the fallow period no farming activities took place in that field. With time the population increased up to a point whereby this method could not produce enough food for the society. In order to deal with this situation fallow periods were decreased and slowly they disappeared. This meant that soil quality continued to deteriorate and farm produce was bound to decline. The society moved to another stage whereby more farming fields were cleared and irrigation systems were invented in order to increase production. This led to depletion of the rain forest cover in the region.
In the raised fields terraces were put in place in order to enhance drainage channels. ‘These terraces were put up by slaves who had been bought by the elite class’ (Hughes 2001, p.44). This new farming methods made the population to increase further and with no time the farm produce was not enough for the population. At the same time the Mayan had moved from chiefdoms to a state society with vital resources being controlled by the elite.
Warfare was a common thing in the chiefdoms as struggle for the control of this vital resources increased (“Maya” 2008). In order to supplement farm produce the Mayan elites engaged in combat wars in order to capture more farming land from their neighbors, and long distance trading was established. The only short coming of these moves is that combat wars needed large army units which could not be sustained by the farm out puts at that time. Population increase and warfare thus led to the collapse of agriculture.
In conclusion the Maya were agrarians and they practiced slash and burn farming method. This traditional farming method enabled the society to exist without destroying their fragile ecosystem. An increase in population put lot of pressure on the ecosystem since intensive farming methods hand to be introduced in order to raise food production. These methods culminated in soil deterioration and farming became ineffective. Chiefdoms were also established and later on they moved to a state level meaning that agriculture was under renewed pressure in order to feed these states and their hierarchies. The continuous pressure on the soil, fragile ecosystem and agriculture methods led to the collapse of agriculture and ultimately the great civilization collapsed.
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Hughes, D. J. An environmental history of the world. Humankinds changing role in the community of life. London: Routledge Publishers, pp. 30-48 2001.
Ramlogan, R. The Developing world and the environment: Making the case for effective protection of the global Environment. New York; university press of America publisher, 2004 pp.1-14.
Webster, D. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the mystery of the Mayan Collapse. London: Thames and Hudson publishers, 2002.