Charles C. Mann disposed of the Rousseauian fantasy of the “noble savage”, in which pre-modern humans lived in balance with the forces of nature and one another. Agriculture was Rousseau’s great bane, and the man who enclosed a plot of land was his serpent that ruined Eden. As a result of agriculture and the resulting sedentary lifestyle, humans looked to one another for their needs instead of their own skills and ingenuity, and civilization arose which corrupted humans to consider what others wanted before their own interests. So began a race between the individual heart and the tyranny of the majority that found its way into art and science, to retard the serpent before the human heart disappeared from the planet. Rousseauians looked for Eden in themselves and in remote places relatively lightly touched by Europeans. Anyone who knows his Conrad knows Rousseau was wrong.
Nature has a balance, but the arcs are ferociously random and extreme. Humans, who do not seem to have any special insight into the planet, do not always respond well to the savagery of climate change, This is the conclusion reached from examining stalagmites in Central America. “The connections between climate and war and societal instability are ones that we think are important,” he notes, “ones that we should be concerned about in light of our current situation.”
One of the things that’s surprising…isn’t related to drought but to wetness. Take a look at the period between CE 440 and 660. You can see that during this time span precipitation was actually fairly high. “Relative to the rest of the record, that’s a pretty unique period” [Douglas] Kennett, [a Professor of Environmental Anthropology at Penn State University] notes — one that kicks off an explosion in culturally and socially complex Maya societies, as evidenced by the proliferation of urban centers, dated monuments and the like.
“Rainfall feeding the Maya’s wetland farming systems worked really well, until they were faced with a climatic downturn,” says Kennett, which his team argues started happening around CE 660. “That’s where you see a trend toward drying,” he explains, “and it’s during that interval when you start getting these peaks in warfare, but you also get proliferation of competing centers.”
With downturns in climate come political unrest. Kings lose power and control under these conditions. Wars are waged. Polities fragment and cities disintegrate; what’s more, they seem to do so almost all at once starting in the late seventh century, where the number of monuments being erected drops precipitously, only to peter out entirely around CE 900 — the timepoint most commonly cited as the “end” of Maya civilization.
“There’s some complex things that are happening in the later period that we argue drought and longer-term changes had an effect on. Drought certainly isn’t the sole thing,” he points out, “but it’s part of the overall system.”
Unrelated to Kennett’s findings, though, researchers have reevaluated the enduring vitality of milpa agriculture.
The Lacandon, Ketchi, Huastec, and other Maya of Central American practice an intricate sequential agroforestry on plots called milpas that includes the famed trio of corn, beans, and squash. Since the process is a cycle, I must pick an arbitrary beginning point. We’ll start with the clearing of a fallowed plot. The farmers cut down most of the trees on a site, but spare many nitrogen fixers, timber trees, and good firewood species. Then they fire the remaining brush. The burning coats the soil with nutrient-rich ash, and cures the firewood trees, which are cut and later carried home on the return leg of planting visits.
Corn, beans, and squash fill much of the milpa the first two years or more, but after the first harvest, the farmers dig in seedlings of bananas, papayas, guavas, and other fruit trees, and interplant them with manioc, tomatoes, chiles, herbs, spices, other favorite food and fiber plants, and some native forest seedlings. Nitrogen-fixing and firewood tree seedlings (such as Gliricidia, which is both) weave a border around the plot. The three sisters and other annuals cover the remaining ground for a few more seasons, but over the next five to eight years, the fruit-tree canopy closes in, and the farmers stop planting annuals. That activity shifts to a new plot, but meanwhile, back at the milpa . . . new cycles begin. By now most anthropologists have gone home and are missing the rest of the picture.
In some spots, farmers pull out a few non-flowering trees and bring in beehives. They also coppice trees known to stump-sprout (often leguminous) and begin growing firewood or craftwood. The tree fruits attract game animals, which supply meat, skins, and feathers. Cattle, tied to large trees, forage amid the greenery. Some of the other originally spared trees become trellises for vanilla beans and other vines, which yield for 10 to 12 years. Fruit rains down.
About this time, when the canopy is furiously spreading to complete closure, the farmers begin directing the milpa toward its final stage in the cycle, the managed forest. Sometimes they’ll choose a particular set of tree species to spare: palms, or timber trees, or certain fruits, and develop a plantation or orchard. But more often they’ll nudge the milpa toward a heterogeneous and seemingly haphazard assortment of lightly cultivated trees enriched with useful understory species. This is what is usually called “fallow,” although these managed forests are yielding plenty.
The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.
Those Mayans might not have been earth gurus, but they did survive long enough to pass on the milpa. And, the milpa might not be what a noble savage would build, but it’s more sustainable than plowing and dousing the dirt with chemicals. It seems the race between humans and the soil and sky is as ugly as a trip down a river of time.