Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Earlier this month the Marathon Pundit family vacationed in Cancun, and while we were there we took a bus trip to the Mayan archaeological site of Tulum.

Click on any image to make it larger.

It was a our second time on the Yucatan Peninsula, the prior time we visited the larger site of Chichen Itza.

The bus rides had one thing in common. Both tour guides claimed to be Mayan Indians. Our Tulum leader, blue-eyed with auburn hair, claimed Mayan descent from one of his grandmothers. Which got me thinking? Is "I'm Mayan" just a line fed to unsuspecting turistas? To be fair, both men were excellent guides, although not as dramatic as the Richard Burton character in "The Night of the Iguana."

Speaking of which, if you don't see an iguana at Tulum, you're not looking.

In Mayan, Tulum means "wall," but it's believed during its time as a living city, which was from roughly 1200 to 1500 A.D., it was known as Zama, or "Dawn."

No one knows why the Mayan civilization died out, but it could be tied to site such as Tulum. Amazingly, the pyramids and towers were built without the benefit of metal tools, although the Mayans possessed obsidian knives. But they didn't have draft animals, wheels, or pulleys either--these wonders were built by human muscle.

Plaster was an important component of the buildings, which led to deforestation. That could explain why the Mayan civilization faded away. Writing for Global Hydrology Research Center, Michon Scott interviewed NASA archaeologist Tom Sever.

"Another piece of evidence," explained Sever, "is the thickness of the floor stones in the Mayan ruins. They would have needed about 20 trees [to build a fire large and hot enough] to make a plaster floor stone that is about one square meter. In the earliest ruins, these stones were a foot or more thick, but they progressively got thinner. The most recently built ones were only a few inches thick." Sever's colleague, atmospheric scientist Bob Oglesby of Marshall Space Flight Center, calls the Mayan deforestation episode "the granddaddy of all deforestation events."

But the Mayans could only transport trees, and well anything else, only by carrying it. Deforestation led to erosion which led to less arable land. Studies of lake beds and ancient pollen lend credence to this hypothesis.

Scientists like to use the lesson of the Mayans--if they really did themselves in--as a lesson for our society. Oglesby suggests that a deforested area is an astonishing five to six degrees celsius warmer after the trees are gone. Post Climategate, I have to wonder about his theory.

In his "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," Jared Diamond writes of "a man-made drought." Man-made catostrophe? More likely.

Tulum, and Chichen Itza, are amazing. If you are in Cancun or Riviera Maya, take a day off from the beach and visit them. Oh, you don't have to completely forget the waves, Tulum has a gorgeous beach--bring your swimsuit.

The Mayans may be gone, except for a blue-eyed tour guide and his familia, but they left behind much worth remembering.

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paul mitchell said...

The geometry/astronomy of Tulum is amazing, too. With the Mayans "eye of the needle" at the temple is was easy to see that their civilization was far advanced for this hemisphere. I never did find out how the Santa Rosa Reef void happened at Tulum. It just seemed that the hole in the reef there was too uniform to be anything other than manmade.

Did you go through the cave under the temple?

John Ruberry said...

We were only there, regrettably, for a couple of hours, so we didn't have time for that. Yes, the Mayans were quite knowledgable about astronomy and had a more accuarate calendar than what was being used in Europe at the time. Just as with my post, I guess, one of the main criticisms of Mel Gibson's "Apocolypto."

paul mitchell said...

My favorite vacations ever have been spent at Akumal. The beach there is the most beautiful that I have seen, really reasonable rates, and right next to everything. If you get to missing city life too much, Cozumel or Cancun is a short trip away.

I love the Yucatan and started going down there in 1987, when Playa del Carmen was still a fishing village. I'm planning another excursion in 2011, if the greenback doesn't collapse.