NOTE: An article in the New York Times illustrated a theory proposed by John Perlin in his book, "A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization" (Harvard University Press, 1991 ). In his book Perlin details the rise and fall of many civilizations through their destruction of the forests that sustained them.
The following is the first part of the Times article followed by some information about Perlin's book.
"Did Maya Doom Themselves by Felling Trees?"
by [Times reporter] William H. Honan,
NYT, 11 April '95
"Philadelphia, April 9 -- The collapse of the Maya civilization in approximately A.D. 800 may have been caused by a self-imposed ecological disaster, a research archaeologist says.
- "A new theory sees a self-inflicted ecological disaster."
- "In their zeal to build monuments, the Maya may have buried themselves."
"Speaking to a group of 500 specialists in ancient Maya civilization gathered here from around the world this weekend, Dr. Richard D. Hansen, a research archaeologist as the University of California at Los Angeles, said that in their zeal to create magnificent architecture the Maya leveled forests to fuel the fires with which they converted limestone into lime stucco. The process requires intense heat.
"The decline of the Maya seven centuries before the arrival of the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes has been one of the enduring mysteries of archeology. Specialists have focused on civil war, changing trade routes and a top-heavy aristocracy as possible major causes of the collapse.
"But Dr. Hansen, who had just returned from an excavation in El Mirador basin in northern Guatemala, has tied the decline to the very architecture that made the Maya famous. The stucco was used to create a smooth veneer on huge limestone pyramids, thick floors and base-relief scenes of deities. `The object,' Dr. Hansen said, `was to display their wealth and power and to manipulate the iconography so as to sustain the ruling class.'
"`You have to burn about 20 big trees and all their branches in order to make only a little pile of lime about one meter high,' he said. `So they hacked down forests.'
"`The deforestation led to soil erosion and that filled in the seasonal swamps where they had been collecting peat to fertilize their terraced agricultural gardens,' Dr. Hansen said. `They messed in their nest and made these areas uninhabitable.
"`The first time this happened was in A.D. 150 to A.D. 250 and then it appears to have been replicated in A.D. 800.'"
[several more paragraphs discussed the debate aroused by Dr. Hansen's theories]
"Some of the best books on conservation tell the story of human civilization through the abuse of the land -- `Deserts on the March' and `Topsoil and Civilization,' for example. Perlin's book belongs on the shelf with them. If you want to understand the destruction of the Pacific Northwest ancient forests and the tropical rainforests today, you will want to read about the five thousand years of forest destruction outlined here. A particular emphasis is given to forest destruction in England early America, although ancient Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, Rome, North Africa, and Europe are well attended to."
Dave Foreman describes John Perlin's book.
Foreword by Lester Brown, footnotes, index, illustrations, 445 pages. Harvard University Press, 1991 (1989).