The Rise and Fall of Civilizations: Modern Archaeological Approaches to Ancient Cultures

By C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky ; Jeremy A. Sabloff | Go to book overview
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William L. Rathje received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971 and is now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. He has worked in the south‐ western United States and Mesoamerica and has recently co-directed a project with J. A. Sabloff which has explored the ancient port-of-trade at Cozumel, Mexico.

There is no agreement among archaeologists on the reasons for the rise of Classic Maya civilization. In any case, the answer is certain to be a complex one. In this stimulating article, Rathje suggests that a climate and topography that on first glance appear to be a detriment to the development of a civilization were, in fact, instrumental in its rise.


The Origin and Development of
Lowland Classic Maya Civilization

William L. Rathje

The southern Maya lowlands present a largely redundant environment which does not possess the potential for major internal symbiotic regions or for irrigation. In fact, the interior of this region is uniformly deficient in resources essential to the efficiency of every individual household engaged in the Mesoamerican agricultural subsistence economy: mineral salt, obsidian for blades, and hard stone for grinding. Yet, in the core of this rain forest region, the basic elements of Classic Maya civilization first coalesced. A model involving methods of procuring and distributing the resources necessary to the efficiency of an agricultural subsistence economy explains the loci of lowland Classic Maya development and the order in which these loci developed. This model can also be applied to the Olmec civilization.

A major archaeological problem today seems to be-why did the lowland Maya civilization evolve in its ecological setting? This paper will develop a hypothesis to explain the evolution of lowland Classic Maya civilization.

Since I subscribe to cultural ecology, the environmental configuration of the Petén rain forest is an obvious beginning. This expansive ecological zone has been characterized as lacking developmental potential because: (1) the environment is redundant in access to resources; (2) transportation of goods is difficult; and (3) slash-and-burn agriculture is the main subsistence technique. As a result, it is thought that there was little stimulus toward trade and redistribution; nucleated centers were rarely maintained and a scattered light settlement was typical; and there were no obvious changes in the subsistence system through time which would have required community efforts and caused increasing ceremonialism ( Meggers 1954; Palerm and Wolf 1957; M. Coe 1961; Sanders 1964;

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Reproduced by permission of the Society for American Archaeology and the author, from American Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 275-285, 1971.

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