Mesopotamian and Mayan foreboding:
We are on the track of a monster.  Ideally I should be able to show you how it destroyed a society.  I should be able to find a record that says, “I am the scribe of High King Somebody of the Kingdom of Something in the year whatever.  The King has directed me to record that the number of babies has fallen over the last generation so that there are now no young children.  When the present older children have grown old our society will vanish.”  And then show that the kingdom disappeared right on schedule.  If I find out about such a record I shall certainly let you know.  But right now, good as our evidence is, we have not been able to follow the process to the very end.  But we shall be able to find more footprints, more clues that it was there.

Many years ago, an archeologist working on an ancient Mesopotamian civilization discovered a tablet or a pot shard with writing on it.  When he translated the writing he found that it was a letter to him.  It ran more or less, “To the one who finds this after our empire has fallen.  I am the High King Somebody of Something in the year whatever.  My empire is going to fall as all empires do.  Know then that …,” and it continued with information that both the king and the archeologist thought was important.  Of course this may have been plain old doom and gloom.  There may have been no reason for the message except that the king was despondent.  The message made no reference to just why the king thought there was going to be a problem, and as the story came to me there was no clue as to just how long it was from the time of the message to the fall of the empire.

But perhaps the king had good evidence that this was going to happen.  What might the evidence have been?  How did he know?  Since this was Mesopotamia, the evidence is overwhelming that the thing that troubled the king was awareness of the same thing that had destroyed every other Mesopotamian civilization.  As we showed on the Main Page of this site, the collapse of each one followed such a predictable pattern that it had to be the same cause every time. 

If the cause was war, the king would have been busy at fighting the war.  The last thing he would have done was tell his scribe they were going to fail.  Any leader would know that.  Also failure in war is never certain.  There is always the chance that some unpredictable even will turn the tide. 

If the cause was famine, the king would have been busy getting his staff to arrange for the best use of what was available and seeking more, whether by trade, by asking a gift from a neighbor or simply going out with an army to seize the food needed.  Telling a member of his own staff that he had no viable plan would only invite a coup.

If the cause was disease, there would inevitably have been hope.  Plagues have a way of burning out eventually.  There might be things that seemed to be worth doing whether tending to the ill or setting up rituals calculated to invite supernatural aid.  Recording a message of, “Oh woe is me.  This will never work,” would be a distraction to the doctors and an affront to the gods. 

If the king knew that the birth rate was low, it makes sense.  The midwives would have known.  Women talk to each other.  Women interested in having babies would have talked to the midwives.  Women would have talked to their husbands, and everybody would have known what was going on.  In that case the king might indeed have failed to mention something that was obvious to everyone around. 

And of course falling birth rates follow a cruel, predictable pattern.  We know that from the way the birth rates of different regions of the world are falling now. 

Long after and thousands of miles away, there is a similar record, but not a written one this time.  The classical Mayan civilization lasted for more than a thousand years, which should be of comfort to all of us.  There really is a way an urban civilization can survive that long.  And they were literate, so that written records have come to us.  I do not wish to give an opinion on whether the Mayan civilization, any one Mesopotamian civilization or all of them combined accomplished more. 

The Mayan writings are well enough known to us so that we are aware that a major event on the calendar will occur in December, 2012.  Whether this event was expected to be anything more interesting than having all the numbers on your odometer turn over at the same time I cannot say.  Some recon they predicted the end of the world at that time.  But maybe the idea of there being an apocalypse at that time is because of our own cultural preoccupation with such things. 

I could quite fairly be accused of predicting an apocalypse myself.  My only defense would be that I have evidence to support it, a clearly defined mechanism that might cause it and enough knowledge so that we might be able to prevent it. 

At all events, Classical Mayan civilization itself did not survive until 2012.  They collapsed around 900 AD, and literate and well organized though they were, they did not record exactly why, or at least if they did we have not found it yet.  A number of theories are being debated including a centuries long drought.  I wasn’t there, and they aren’t talking, so the debate will presumably continue.  But there was one remarkable thing they did at the end.

They mothballed their civilization. 

It would appear that after a thousand years of making enormous investments in public works they had noticed something.  Things need maintenance.  If you leave something out in the weather, a heroic building for instance, it will eventually fall apart.  The Romans took the attitude that if they built things well enough, they should never have to go back and do repairs.  There is an old Roman bridge in France that still has the little knobs on the stone where the scaffolding was braced.  The knobs were supposed to be removed when construction was done.  They never did that.  If there was a program of regular inspection and repair, that would have been the first thing on the program.  The bridge is still serviceable.  I have walked across it myself.  But it is still unfinished.

For centuries it has been a custom to hang big bells in towers in Europe and elsewhere.  The bells could be rung by heaving mightily on ropes.  For a long time, the moment when it seemed like a good idea to go up and inspect the bells was the moment one of them fell down and squashed a ringer. 

But the Mayans understood that if they were not there to look after them, their great monuments would be destroyed.  They undertook the great task of burying them all in dirt. 

You don’t bury your town because there is a drought.  You work your fields and hope for rain.  You don’t bury your town because there is a plague, you address the plague.  You don’t bury your town because you are at war, you fight the war.

But if there are no babies, there is nothing you can do.  You bury your town hoping that somewhere, somehow a remnant will survive to come back, to unbury your town and to enjoy the great things you have accomplished. 

I understand the feeling. 

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