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January 28, 2004

"Lost" civilizations

I saw the NOVA documentary about the Maya kings for the second time last night. It was kind of a strange coincidence since I recently went to an art opening that turned out to be a front for a cult that bases its beliefs around the Maya calendar. But I also began to wonder about the issue of "lost" civilizations.

In The Human Web the McNeills talk about a network of information that slowly spread over the whole world. As the network spread it became more durable and resilient from the periodic crashes that might afflict individual civilizations (nodes).

When we look at the Maya, with their advanced mathematics and literacy we often wonder "what went wrong?" We neglect the continuance of a less spectacular lowland Maya civilization, but nonetheless, the decline in organizational complexity and centralization is notable. I think that the fact that the Maya period spans the middle of our first millennium is important.

After about 500 BCE the Eurasian network of civilizations underwent a turning point. It became progressively more translocal, and the spread of "world religions" helped stitch the various polities together ideologically as well as economically.

But we should think back to the period between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE. Several literate civilizations simply turned the lights off after hundreds of years of success. Mycenaean Greece, Indus Valley India and Hittite Anatolia are the big examples of civilizations that went into decline. There are lesser known lights, such as the city of Tartessos, that could no doubt populate a constellation of "lost civilizations." But even around 1000 BCE, the nadir of the old world network at that point, Egypt managed to keep a semblence of order and Assyria rose to fill the power vacuum with the decline of Babylonia and especially the Hittites (this is also the period that the Israelite kindgom is supposed to have had its glory years). India and Greece both "re-discovered" literacy thanks to the stimulus of Aramaic speaking peoples, so the redundancy of the network was crucial.

Looking to the Maya now, we see that there simply wasn't a large enough informational network to stimulate them to rise to the same heights that they once achieved. There is no "mystery" of why the Maya fell (shit happens), there is only the reality that they had few sister civilizations in close proximity that could spur a second age of greatness through cultural diffusion. There is surely a reason so many ancient peoples had a cyclical view of time, because decline seemed inevitable, it was only after 500 BCE that the corner was turned, and even then there were downward oscillations.... (the Roman Empire and Chinese Empire both collapsed after 300, but in contrast, India was going through its "Golden Age" of the Guptas).

Posted by razib at 01:43 PM