Sharing Environmental Concerns with Ancient Mayans

December 20, 2012

On the eve of December 21--a significant date according to the ancient Mayan calendar--Director of WCS's Latin America and Caribbean program discusses the way previous civilizations interacted with nature. Dr. Kunen likens our contemporary relationship with the natural world to dilemmas faced by the ancient Mayans.

According to the ancient Mayan calendar, on 21 December, 2012, the 13th baktun – a calendrical measure equivalent to 144,000 days – will conclude as the next one commences. Many have interpreted this epochal transition from one era of human civilisation to another as a harbinger of apocalypse. Others believe that the turning of the Mayan calendar will mark a qualitative shift in the human relationship with the cosmos.

More than a millennium ago, the ancient Mayans suffered their own apocalypse in the tropical forests of present-day Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. The civilisation withered, its survivors forced to abandon their grand cities for small, isolated enclaves. Some scientists believe that the Mayan collapse was due to population increase, exhaustion of soils and forests, and drought. In reality, Mayan civilisation disintegrated because its leaders, while capable of empire building, failed to recognise and respond to societal challenges that included a damaged environment, shrinking natural resource base and changing climate.

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