Chapter 9

The Twilight of the Gods

THE FALL OF TEOTIHUACÁN

            For almost 900 years following its founding in the wake of Cuicuilco's destruction and abandonment, Teotihuacán had flourished as the greatest commercial and cultural center of the entire New World, reaching at the peak of its wealth and power a population which probably numbered close to 200,000. Its trade relations extended down into the Gulf coastal lowlands of eastern Mexico and most likely as far as Soconusco as well, for its architectural innovations are seen at Kaminaljuyú on the outskirts of modern Guatemala City. Its religious and artistic influences were felt even amongst the lowland Maya, and artisans and merchants from virtually all parts of Mesoamerica frequented its markets and bazaars. No other native culture in the Americas ever produced a larger, more dynamic or impressive a metropolis than Teotihuacán, and in its heyday it ranked as one of the three greatest cities in the world, along with Rome in Europe and Beijing in Asia.

            For all its economic power and architectural grandeur it was, however, a "forward capital" -- an exposed outpost on the northern edge of the Mesoamerican cultural realm, a geographic location which gave it only half a hinterland. In this regard, it was more similar to Beijing than to Rome, for the former also lay near the northern perimeter of the Chinese cultural realm. And, like Beijing, its hinterland was defined by the limits of agriculture, for beyond it to the north stretched the arid wastes of the Mexican plateau, just as its Asian counterpart confronted the endless steppes of Mongolia and the shifting sands of the Gobi. Rome, on the other hand, not only lay near the middle of the Mediterranean basin but also near the middle of the then-known oekumene, or habitable world, of Western civilization.

            But unlike either Beijing or Rome, both of which saw themselves threatened by peoples beyond the agricultural pale and therefore sought to protect themselves from that quarter, Teotihuacán apparently never contemplated the likelihood of danger from the northern deserts. Whereas the Romans set their boundary across the narrows of northern England along Hadrian's Wall and on the mainland of Europe along the Rhine River, a line of palisaded forts through southwestern Germany known as the Limes, and the Danube River, and the Chinese constructed the Great Wall from the shores of the Yellow Sea for more than 3000 km (2000 mi) into the wastelands of western China, Teotihuacán took no such precautions against the nomads of the Mexican plateau. Surely the cultural boundary between "civilized" and "barbarian" was just as sharp in the New World as it was in the Old, but any threat that this might have implied seems to have been totally ignored or discounted in the case of Teotihuacán.

            Ironically, all three of these world metropolises ultimately suffered the same fate: Each of them fell to barbarous nomads from the north. Perhaps the greatest irony was that of Rome, which had the greatest defense in depth between itself and its northern enemies and yet was the first to succumb to their depredations (in the fifth century A.D.). Beijing, thanks at least in part to its elaborate Wall, managed to hold off the Mongols until the thirteenth century, whereas Teotihuacán was overrun about the middle of the eighth century A.D.

Figure 52. The water budget for Mexico City (Aztec Tenochtitlán) demonstrates the characteristic monsoonal variation from low-sun drought to high-sun rains, with the annual precipitation total falling just slightly short of what is required for forest cover. Thus, the native vegetation of the Valley of Mexico is grassland, though only a few score meters (a couple hundred feet) upslope in the cooler, moister mountains good stands of pine and oak may be found. Because the elevation of Tenochtitlán averaged about 2350 m (7700 ft), the climate in which the Aztecs found themselves was neither tropical nor even quite subtropical, the boundary for the latter being a warmth index of 4.0. Of course, both warmth and moisture fall off to the northwest, resulting in a climate which is inimicable to growing corn and hence a region which remained the preserve of the hunting-and-gathering Chichimecs.

 

            That a city of nearly a quarter of a million people could fall before the onslaught of a mere handful of nomadic hunters and gatherers may seem a highly unlikely scenario; it was not, to be sure, a foretaste of the destruction to be wreaked on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán eight centuries later by a few hundred Spanish conquistadores, for that uneven struggle was between a Stone Age people and a small army that was equipped with horses, mastiff dogs, steel swords, and firearms and which had the psychological advantage of a confused mythology surrounding it. Teotihuacán appears to have lacked not only defensive preparations but also any kind of military organization to come to the city's aid in time of attack. With no ramparts to protect it and no militia it could muster, Teotihuacán must have seemed a plum just waiting to be picked by the first band of nomads who felt themselves bold enough to attempt such a move. Those invaders appear to have been the Otomís, a semi-sedentary buffer group who were caught in the path of an advance wave of Uto-Aztecan, or Nahuatl-speaking, peoples, spreading southward across the Mexican plateau during the first half of the seventh century A.D.

            We can only guess at what triggered the southward movement of the Uto-Aztecans. Perhaps it was the growing desiccation of their original homelands in what is now the southwestern United States, in the same way that drought had so frequently served as a mechanism in setting off migrations of nomadic peoples in the heart of Asia. (In fact, so widespread and recurring were these periods of dryness in the heartland of that vast continent that Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington spoke of the climate of the region as "the pulse of Asia.") At the same time that the Petén region of northern Guatemala -- the core area of the Maya civilization -- seemed to be experiencing a gradual increase in moisture (again, according to Huntington), the homeland of the northern nomads may well have been undergoing a progressive diminution in rainfall. (Indeed, the global climatic model developed by the CLIMAP project confirms that from ca. A.D. 850 until 1250 temperatures warmed and precipitation decreased over the Mexican plateau [Messenger, 1990, 27]. It is not impossible that these trends could have already set in a century or two earlier in the American Southwest, whence came the original Uto-Aztecan peoples. There is evidence that Mesoamerican cultural outliers in the north of Mexico began disappearing shortly after A.D. 600 [Adams, 1991, 284].) In a region already marginal in the extreme, such a nudge from the climate may have been all that it took for the hunters and gatherers of the northern desert to turn ever more covetous eyes on the rich and thriving city to their south.

            Thus, the arrival of the Otomís in Teotihuacán was probably the result of both a "push" from a steadily deteriorating climate and a "pull" exerted by a large, prosperous, and totally defenseless city. In any event, confronted with the choice of standing their ground in the face of the advancing nomads on the north or of seeking refuge in the grandiose city to the south, the hapless Otomís opted for the latter. Their own intentions may not have been hostile, but certainly the Teotihuacanos could hardly have been expected to welcome them with open arms. The economic, social, and political dislocations which resulted from having a horde of refugees overrun the great city were probably more than it could endure. Even so, the Otomís were merely "the tip of the iceberg", for the real collision of cultures came somewhat later when the Uto-Aztecans themselves burst into the Valley of Mexico. With the arrival of the Toltecs, the city's fate was sealed, for the charred timbers of Teotihuacán's palaces reveal that it was put to the torch about A.D. 750.

            What the Toltecs could have gained by destroying this great metropolis -- other than perhaps some temporary alleviation of hunger amongst their clansmen -- is difficult to imagine. By "beheading" the nerve center of the Mesoamerican world, the Toltecs all but demolished the vast commercial network of which it was the focus. And by slaughtering such of its priests and chieftains who had not fled at their coming, they all but extinguished the very religious and cultural basis of its society. Of course, on both of these scores, the Toltecs were scarcely any different from the Goths in Rome or the Mongols in Beijing; immediate and pressing motives took precedence over any thought of the wider implications their actions might ultimately have. At the moment, none of the invaders could have foreseen the devastating effects that each of their moves would have on the forward march of civilization in their respective parts of the world, and even if they had, they probably could have cared less. It is only we, in retrospect, who can appreciate the full sense of tragedy which these events portended.

            It can hardly be imagined what the fall of Teotihuacán must have meant to the peoples and cultures of Mesoamerica. By way of a modern analogy, it could perhaps be likened to the repercussions that the total destruction of a New York or London would have on the world's economic and cultural life today. Yet, because it was the only metropolis of its size and significance in the New World, its loss must have been even more keenly felt.

            Not only did the fabric of long-distance trade break down, but it was as though the very heart and brain of the region had suddenly stopped. Refugees from the city fled to the south and east taking with them only what they could carry in their arms and minds. Some sought sanctuary on a mountaintop near the present-day city of Cuernavaca where they built a defensively conscious ceremonial center which we know today as Xochicalco. Others poured across the mountains into the basin of Puebla, finding only temporary refuge at Cholula, for the Toltecs soon overran that place as well. Still others continued downslope into the eastern rain forests where they took up residence in the ceremonial center of El Tajín, almost hidden amidst the karstic hills of what is now northern Veracruz state. But these survivors of the holocaust -- the elite, without question -- could only have been a small number of the original population of Teotihuacán, the remainder of whom now found themselves struggling to keep alive without the infrastructure and security of an urban exchange system. For them, the great majority, it was as though the clock had been turned back to the days of a subsistence economy.

            It was not just the physical destruction of the city itself nor the breakdown in food supply lines which caused such agony and suffering, severe though that must have been; it was also the psychological shock of witnessing a great metropolis collapse into anarchy -- without any semblance of law and order, without any feeling of personal security, without any meaning to its social or political or religious structure, without any promise of a future. Surely, the fall of Teotihuacán sent shock waves of despair throughout Mesoamerica, for ultimately no people or culture within the region could escape its repercussions.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE PURÉPECHA

            Ironically, it was just as Teotihuacán was undergoing the trauma of its conquest and destruction that the Maya were nearing the peak of their development. While the palaces of the Teotihuacanos were being put to the torch on the edges of the northern desert, the skyscraper pyramids of Tikal were rising, tier upon tier, out of the jungles of Petén. Probably the first reports the Maya had of their great rival's demise came with runners from the north bearing the evil tidings. In the months that followed, the slow but steady shrinkage and then abandonment of all trade with the northern metropolis took place. This, in turn, must have been succeeded by increasing dislocations of peoples on the northern periphery, as tribes and cultures in the path of the fleeing refugees and advancing warriors were forced to give way to the southward-pressing nomads.

            It was not, however, just the advance of the Nahuatl-speaking migrants coming out of "la gran Chichimeca," as the Spanish came to call the desert north of Mexico, that occasioned this growing cascade of peoples from the borderlands of Mesoamerica. Sometime about the eighth or ninth century A.D. a seaborne people appear to have arrived on the west coast of Mexico in sufficient numbers to have had a disruptive effect on the settlement pattern which had previously existed. Calling themselves the Purépecha, which in their own language meant "latecomers" or "recent arrivals," they seem to have made their original landfall in the vicinity of the mouth of the Balsas River and then spread inland and upstream from there. Apart from the coastal fringe of the river mouth itself, the country in which they found themselves was the hottest and driest part of southern Mexico -- the desert basin of the Balsas Depression -- a region which may well have been a population void before their arrival. In any event, the Purépecha quickly realized that the Balsas had little to offer them other than metallic ores, such as copper, silver, and gold, and while they had the technology and skills to smelt and fashion metals, they certainly could not derive their sustenance from them. Thus, it was almost inevitable that they would seek the solace of the cooler, damper, forested uplands where they could cultivate their crops and build their homes. The region that beckoned them was the volcanic highland of Michoacán, an upland of productive soils and pine-clad mountains liberally sprinkled with sparkling lakes teeming with fish and aquatic birds. That such a land had gone previously unsettled seems hardly likely, but just which peoples the Purépecha displaced to take possession of it is somewhat unclear. Surely, the Mixtecs, or "cloud people," on their southeast were probably jostled by their arrival, for about this time the Mixtecs began a concerted southward advance against their longtime neighbors in the valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotecs. And the Otomís may have been pushed to the north and east, spilling into the basins of Mexico and San Luis Potosi at this time. Another people set adrift by these migrations seems to have been the Chiapanecs, whose original homeland is unknown but who ended up pushing southward during this same time frame into the northwestern corner of Chiapas state -- to which they gave their name -- and there being ultimately absorbed by the Zoques. The Purépecha dominions came to coincide almost perfectly with the drainage basin of the Balsas, which today coincides nearly exactly with the state boundaries of Michoacán; both of these natural and political regions can, in turn, be delimited by the areal extent of the Purépecha language and its place-names.

Figure 53.

The distinctive character of Purépecha, or Tarascan, place-names makes it relatively simple to outline the extent of the settlement area which the Purépecha occupied at the time of the Spanish conquest. It seems rather unlikely that the area which they occupied before the Conquest was larger, for none of their neighbors could match them either in terms of armaments or military organization.

 

            The Purépecha were in almost every way strikingly different from their neighbors. Not only was their language totally unrelated to any of the native tongues around them, but their culture was quite unlike that of the Mesoamericans. They dressed differently, they cut their hair differently, they knew the use of metal and their neighbors did not, and their gods and religion were different. Obviously, the Mesoamerican calendar with its intertwined pantheon of gods and rituals was totally unknown to them, and despite their precocity in fashioning metals, they seem to have been notably lacking in mathematical and astronomical knowledge. Quantification to the Purépecha was defined as "one, two, and many," whereas their interest in celestial matters seemed to focus on the Southern Cross -- suggesting that their native home may well have been in western South America, from which they brought the knowledge of metallurgy (Adams, 1991, 284).

            Although the Purépecha practiced agriculture, they were described by their later Aztec neighbors as being primarily hunters and fishermen; indeed, Michoacán in Nahuatl means "the land of the fishermen." Their principal deity was the god of fire, but whether this was a carryover from their original homeland or an innovation that arose as a result of finding themselves (a) in a region of active volcanism or (b) in a region of plentiful firewood is impossible to say. Certainly, in the moist uplands of Michoacán there was not the same preoccupation with the seasonal lack of precipitation which prompted most Mesoamerican societies to place the rain-god near the top of their pantheon. Thus, while the Purépecha remain in many ways an enigma in the already puzzling framework of prehistoric Mesoamerica, their belated arrival, coinciding closely with the southward push of the Nahuatl-speaking nomads from the north, may have helped to set off the chain reaction of population dislocations which overwhelmed much of the region within the century or two which followed.

THE COLLAPSE OF THE MAYA

            In their semi-isolation amidst the rain forests of the Petén and the scrub forests of Yucatán on the southeastern borderlands of Mesoamerica, the Maya were literally the last of the pre-Columbian cultures to feel the impact of the population movements on the region's northern and western frontiers. Indeed, apart from the Nahuatl-speaking Pipiles and the Nicarao who inexplicably made a "long march" off the Mexican plateau, down through the Pacific coastal lowland of Soconusco, and into what are today the countries of El Salvador and northwestern Nicaragua, the southern margins of Mesoamerica seem not to have been actively involved in the movements of peoples per se, at least not initially. The impact which they experienced was perhaps more an economic and psychological one than a physical one, though the former may eventually have locally translated into the latter as well. It may well be compared to the course of revolution running through Latin America in the early nineteenth century, modeled on events which had previously taken place in the United States and France but which Latin Americans had only heard about rather than directly experienced. In any case, the cause of the collapse of the Maya, just as they seemed to be reaching the zenith of their civilization, has been a source of much speculation and long debate among scholars.

            Evidence for the decline of the Maya may be read from both their calendrical inscriptions and their architectural activity -- or more accurately stated, from their gradual cessation. Beginning in the first half of the ninth century, at one ceremonial center after another the practice of erecting stelae to commemorate the completion of a hotun, or katun, was abandoned. (The hotun was an interval of five "Vague Years.") This, of course, suggests that an interest in or a concern with calendrical matters had for some reason disappeared, and in a society which heretofore had been obsessed with timekeeping, it was as if the very essence of their religious structure or belief system had been altered. Similarly, no great public works of construction or renewal of pyramids or palaces was undertaken, meaning that the very physical infrastructure of their society was beginning to fall apart. Thus, even the meager clues we have at hand suggest that both  the spiritual and material existence of the Maya began to deteriorate markedly from about the 840's onward.

            Among the many hypotheses advanced to explain the demise of the Maya civilization have been those which sought to invoke both physical, or environmental, factors and cultural, religious, sociological, and/or political factors. Some theorists have looked for internal causes within the Maya homeland in Petén, while others have suggested external forces from outside their core area as the impetus for their decline. Let us examine each of these major arguments in an effort to evaluate how they may have, individually and collectively, contributed to the society's downfall.

            On the physical or environmental side of the argument, two rather different scenarios have been proposed, one predicated on a change in climate and the other on an essentially static climate within the region. In the first scenario, championed initially by Huntington in the period about the time of the First World War, a gradual increase in rainfall took place in the Petén region beginning about the eighth century. Not only did the vegetation grow back more rapidly, making it difficult for the Maya to keep their cornfields from being overgrown, but the shorter dry season made periodic burning difficult as well. Moreover, the soils were increasingly leached of their nutrients, resulting in declining crop yields at the same time that population growth was reaching a peak. Increasingly unable to feed themselves any longer, much less the growing numbers of the urban elite dependent upon them, the Maya farmers were pushed to the limits of their endurance. Certainly, there would be no "spare time" left over for such "frivolous" pursuits as building or reconstructing pyramids at the whim of the priest or chieftain. The net result was the breakdown of the food supply system coupled with a gradual dissolution of political control and religious authority: in short, a physical collapse which resulted in a cultural implosion.

            But what evidence did Huntington employ on which to build such a hypothesis? As it turns out, his primary source material was derived from the growth rings of the sequoia trees of California, a region which he argued had a climate which was inversely related to that of the Petén. In other words, when it was relatively wet in California, it was dry in the Petén, whereas if California underwent a drought, Petén would receive more than its normal share of precipitation. Thus, at the peak of the so-called Old Empire of the Maya, from about A.D. 300 to 900, the tree-ring evidence from California suggests normal rainfall in that area with consequent drought in the Petén, but beginning about the end of that era, a prolonged period of drought set in, in the American Southwest, which was paralleled by heavier than normal rainfall over Central America.

            The Mayanist Sylvanus Morley, for one, did not "buy" Huntington's argument, for he questioned how the climate in one part of the world could possibly be instrumental in occasioning a change in another 3000 km (2000 mi) away. Of course, at the time that both Huntington and Morley wrote, nothing was known of the jet stream, the El Niño phenomenon, or of what climatologists have subsequently come to call "teleconnections": the interrelationships between climatic factors over long distances. But as the latter concepts have increasingly come into the tool kit of the discipline, such teleconnections are no longer so "unthinkable." Indeed, an anecdote from my own firsthand field experience may speak directly to such a circumstance, for during the late 1970's while California was undergoing a severe drought, abnormally heavy rains throughout the Gulf coastal region of Mexico and the Petén region of northern Guatemala caused large-scale flooding in those areas. A blocking "high" in the Pacific off of California produced a northward "kink" in the jet stream which sent Pacific airmasses ashore in the Northwest, which, once they had crossed the Rockies, were shunted deeply southward over the Gulf of Mexico where they collided with maritime tropical air and resulted in a sustained period of heavy precipitation. Thus, even though Huntington may not have totally understood the mechanics of such an interrelationship, his hypothesis may have been closer to the truth than his detractors, both then and later, have been willing to acknowledge. (Indeed, it is interesting that the computerized global climatic model created by the CLIMAP project strongly supports Huntington's basic premises: During the Classic Period, the southern Maya region was cooler and drier than normal, whereas beginning about A.D. 850 the Maya lowlands became considerably wetter. On the other hand, this contradicts entirely the drought hypothesis reported in Adams [1991, 266]. As suggested above, in most rain forest environments it is not drought that presents a threat, it is additional rain!)

            In the second physical hypothesis, no climatic change is postulated. Now the burden of collapse falls squarely on soil depletion; after many generations of farmers repeatedly growing corn on the same plots of land, the soils simply wore out, especially as the increasing pressures of population growth precluded their fallowing for any restorative period. With the breakdown of the food supply system, the further scenario of administrative and social collapse was inevitable.

            Hypotheses that look to a cultural explanation of the Maya's downfall tend to stress war, civil unrest, or disease as a causative factor of societal decay. It has long been recognized that the idealistic view of the Maya as a peace-loving, intellectually oriented people was the figment of the imagination of certain early scholars who were prone to simplistically compare the Maya to the Greeks and the Aztecs to the Romans. The evidence of war among the Maya may be seen in ceremonial centers such as Becán, in the southern Yucatán, founded early on in the "Old Empire," for it was fortified by both a wall and a dry moat. Walls have also been found running through the jungle to the north and south of Tikal, though they did not prevent the city from being subjugated by its neighbors to the east. Indeed, Edzná itself, perhaps the oldest major Maya urban agglomeration (dating to the second century B.C.), also boasts a moated fort of sizable proportions. Therefore, warfare seems to have been endemic among the Maya city-states right from the outset, so whether it could have taken such a drastic upturn in the mid- ninth century that the very existence of the ceremonial centers themselves was undercut remains to be conclusively demonstrated.

            As regards the civil unrest hypothesis, any number of possible "triggers" suggest themselves: A farmers' rebellion against repeated levees of public-works projects by the priestly caste has already been mentioned. Internal bickering between heirs apparent to the power structure could have factionalized the public as well. (Maybe there were too many rivals being "seated" in new offices at the same time, as the epigraphers suggest happened in Copán!) Or perhaps new or different interpretations of religious dogma became the divisive "straw that broke the camel's back." One could, of course, go on suggesting all manner of such potential causes for dissension, but alas, without the satisfaction of knowing which, if any, of them is correct. In the same way, any evidence that there might have been of widespread mortality caused by disease is totally lacking, for in the humid climate of the Petén, especially, skeletal remains are quickly decomposed.

            Having framed the discussion in terms of internal versus external causes, we are again at a loss for historical evidence, particularly of the latter. We do know that at least one band of Toltecs, supposedly driven out of their society by an internecine struggle for the kingship, migrated from the Valley of Mexico, through Cholula to the Gulf coast, and then sailed to the Yucatán in the late tenth century. This exploit not only gave rise to a Toltec cultural overlay in such places as Chichén Itzá but also provided the fabric of a legend which ultimately had far-reaching effects on the history of Mesoamerica, namely the promised return of Quetzalcóatl to rightly claim his throne. However, by the time this episode took place, the "Old Empire" of the Maya in the jungles of the Petén was all but over, and such vitality as it still possessed was then found in the city states of the drier scrub country of the northern Yucatán. By then warfare had reached a new level of ferocity with leagues of city-states grouping themselves around the leadership of such places as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán. The latter fortified itself with a great enclosing wall, as did the smaller but strategic seaport center of Tulúm, but to little ultimate advantage. The so-called "New Empire" of the Maya (from A.D. 900 to 1200) represented something of a desperate last gasp of a people who had already seen most of their grandeur and knowledge slip away from them. Their calendar had degenerated into a Short Count in which there was no longer any span of time recognized other than the 52-year intervals between the meshing of the sacred and secular counts. Their architecture had become almost a caricature of what they had built earlier, as witnessed in the shoddy temple structures of a place such as Tulúm. And their elaborate religious pantheon seems to have given way, as least in part, to a form of phallic worship, as evidenced by the crude stelae found at some of the "New Empire" sites. In short, the glory that had been the Maya's was already long gone at the time of the arrival of the Spanish; it only remained for the latter to extirpate virtually all of the remaining material evidence of their civilization by burning whatever indigenous records and books they could find.

            Concerning our earlier discussion on the role of climate in the demise of the Maya, there is intriguing geomorphic evidence which lends further support to Huntington's thesis of an increasingly wet climate in southeastern Mexico during the Late Classic Period (A.D. 600-900). The westernmost site ever constructed by the Maya was Comalcalco, which lies in the heart of the swampy lowland called Chontalpa, some 40 km (25 mi) to the northwest of the modern city of Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco state, and some 16 km (10 mi) from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It is located on the right bank of the Río Seco ("Dry River") at an elevation scarcely 10 m (33 ft) above sea level. Situated in the midst of an extensive alluvial lowland, Comalcalco had no easy access to building stone of any kind; hence, in this one place and nowhere else the Maya constructed their buildings of fired brick, giving the site a totally unique character among Mesoamerican ceremonial centers.

            But Comalcalco is unique in another way as well. At the time of its construction, it apparently served as a seaport -- most probably for Palenque and the hinterland of the Grijalva Valley, which lay to the southwest. In its heyday, Comalcalco may, in fact, have lain on or immediately back of the coast, for the continuous sedimentary deposition of the great rivers in this region has since pushed the shoreline farther and farther out into the shallow waters of the adjacent Gulf. At the same time, the block of the earth's crust beneath this giant, compound delta has been sinking under the weight of the accumulating sediments, for today the footings of most of Comalcalco's buildings are standing in water -- not too unlike the conditions found in Venice.

            However, it is not the Po plain of Italy which affords the closest parallel with the Chontalpa region of Tabasco but rather the plain of the Yellow River in North China. There, the mighty Hwang Ho, also known as "China's Sorrow," has changed its course at least nine times in the last 25 centuries. Probably the most disastrous of these course changes occurred in 1854 when, just downstream of the city of Kaifeng, the river abandoned its old channel which led southeastward out into the Yellow Sea and turned sharply northeastward to find an outlet in the Bo Hai instead. Not only were immense areas flooded in the process, but it is also estimated that the inundation took the lives of over a million persons trapped in its path. The present mouth of the Yellow River lies on the north side of the Shandong Peninsula, fully 250 miles from its former outlet to the south of that peninsula.

            I would argue that much the same kind of a catastrophe befell the Chontalpa region sometime in the Late Classic Period. In this instance, the Grijalva River, presently credited with ranking seventh in volume among the rivers of the world, made a similar drastic shift in its channel just upstream of the present-day city of Cárdenas. Turning sharply eastward, it abandoned its older, more direct route to the Gulf and spilled into the vast swampy basin where the Río de Teapao, Río Tacotalpa, Río Macuspana, Río Tulijá, and the immense Río Usumacinta and its myriad tributaries all come together. Comalcalco, the former seaport and gateway to the great Grijalva Valley, was now left "high and dry" along the empty watercourse of the Río Seco -- without a hinterland to serve and quite cut off from any overland contacts it may have earlier had with the Maya core area to the east. Certainly, if there had been any Maya settlements and ceremonial centers in the immensely fertile river valleys between the Grijalva and the Usumacinta -- and it seems almost unthinkable that the Maya had not seen fit to utilize this region -- all traces of them were swept away in the resultant flood. Although the effects of this cataclysm may have been limited to the immediate Chontalpa region, it is very possible that they were, in fact, just the most dramatic manifestation of a changing climate which was soon to engulf the entire Maya society. What we do know is that the wave of collapse moved across the Maya lowlands from west to east, with the first Maya center to go under being Palenque about A.D. 810. Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras on the mighty Usumacinta followed soon after (by 825), and Altar de Sacrificios farther up the valley was essentially abandoned by 910. Within the next few decades the rain forests of the Petén had swallowed up most of the remaining cities, and what had once been a thriving urban population of perhaps 12 million had fallen to an impoverished rural population of less than 2 million (Adams, 1991, 264).

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