November 18, 2011


James Aimers
Department of Anthropology
State University of New York at Geneseo
Geneseo New York, 14454

Dear James Aimers:
I was interested in your article about the Mayans and drought.  (James Aimers The Story of the Artifacts NATURE vol. 479 no. 7371 November 3, 2011 page 44)  I was particularly smitten with your observation that explanations for the Mayan collapse have changed with the interests of the time.  Try not to groan, but I have my own interest and would be pleased to stick it onto the Mayans. 

The evidence is the time course.  The probability that a civilization will collapse is a direct function of the time since it was a village or alliance of villages – if that is known – or else its time as a power, if its age since it was a village is not known; the curves are different only because the ages must be averaged in the absence of good knowledge.  If you care to go to my web site and look at what I posted as the “Orlando Meeting,” you can see that the classical Mayans fit right in there with the rest of them.  They declined because they had been around to long.

Of course you immediately ask why that should be, and it is also explained at length in the posting.  But briefly put you know that we always used to marry cousins and there were lots of babies.  Now we never marry cousins and babies are few.  For some reason we don’t say, “Aha, let’s get the babies back; we need to go back to marrying cousins.”  Apparently nobody ever says that, Mayans included.  Have a look at my evidence.  I think you will be interested.  I would be delighted to hear your reaction. 

There is another point you might help me with.  Many years ago I read, and then lost the reference, that the Mayans effectively mothballed their civilization.  They deliberately to loads of dirt and buried their spectacular monuments.  Then they vanished.  Now why in the world, one wonders, would they do that.  Well they had to know that things of value need either careful preservation or constant upkeep, so if they knew they were on the way out, they might have done it.  Their calendar was not calling for THE END; that’s not due for another year of so.  (Ho, ho.  Just kidding.)  The fact of the mothballing has to be reconciled with any theory of collapse.

So invasion and revolution are out.  If there is violence afoot, you attend to it.  You don’t drop everything and undertake a massive public works project with no immediate reward.

Similarly if famine or disease is laying you low, you conserve your energy and hope things improve. 

But if the babies stop, and I suspect it can happen rather abruptly. You find yourself in a society that is big, vigorous, capable, well organized but the youngest person is about 40 and you have no expectation of any more babies.  So what do you do?  Since you are spared the upkeep of children, you have more time and energy than you have any rational use for.  So you do something that requires a lot of work for little reward.

Unfortunately I cannot document this mothballing.  Maybe it never happened.  If it did, I would certainly appreciate being pointed in the direction of a reference.  If that’s not convenient, a simple, “Yep,” or “Nope,” would be gratefully received.


M. Linton Herbert MD

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