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The ancient Maya, a flamboyant civilization, became one of the longest lasting Columbian civilizations because of their ability to transform and adapt to challenging and frustrating ecological conditions…
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THE TACTICS OF MAYA FARMERS The ancient Maya, a flamboyant civilization, became one of the longest lasting Columbian civilizations because of their ability to transform and adapt to challenging and frustrating ecological conditions. The classic Maya civilization flourished in the southern low lands of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras between the last four centuries before Christ and AD 900. Despite the conditions of prolonged dry spells caused by draught, constant brushfires that devastated the earth, and erratic rain patterns that wreaked havoc on agriculture, the Maya community’s survival for such a long period of time could be attributed to their farming tactics.
The hot and humid conditions of the low lands, with no possibility for irrigation, posed the primary challenge to the Mayan existence as a farming community, but they seemed to have adapted to these adverse conditions by their innovative tactics. They moved to the dense forest area that mantled the southern lowlands, cleared the primordial forest and utilized it for agriculture. In order to overcome the infertility of their homeland, they adopted the slash-and-burn cultivation by cleaning the brush and trees, and burning them. This helped them to put to use even the barren lands. However, this had a shortcoming that the fertility would last for only about two years or so. The Mayans were again imaginative here by migrating to fresher meadows where they cultivated, and returned after several years to utilize the same land they earlier abandoned. Maintaining this process as a cycle, they were able to use a wider area of land. Thus they were able to circumvent, albeit temporarily, the challenges of nature.
Another classic feature that vouches for the validity of Mayan’s tactic is the manner in which the farmers drained and canalized swamps, at least two thousand years ago, and turned the useless land into highly productive acreages. Subsequently, they confronted a problem of explosion in population. Yet again they rose to the occasion by starting cultivation in the hillside by creating extensive tracts of terraces on steep hillsides in serried rows, thereby trapping the slit that would otherwise cascade down during torrential rain falls. This was a classic example of the diversity of Mayan farming tactics.
Another emphatic aspect that underlined the Mayan tactics could be evidenced when we consider the lack of water resources, which was another dominant feature of the low lands and the manner in which they resolved this issue. Coupled with unpredictable rainfall, scarcity of water deprived the Mayan community of a basic amenity. But they found a way to overcome this by obtaining drinking water from the circular sink holes in the lime stone and from swampy depressions or from bottle shaped cisterns with plastered rims that caught the water from wet season.
Thus one could easily see that the adaptability of Mayan farmers and their tactics were the key elements that helped them confront their challenges and survive through the hazards of nature. As Fagan rightly put it, “Despite the short term climatic swings and tropical homeland with fragile and only moderately fertile soils, classic Maya civilization flourished for more than eight centuries before the harsh realities of over population and environmental stress toppled its proud leaders. That it survived so long in such a demanding environment is a tribute to the skill of Maya farmers.” (145).
Fagan, Brian. Floods, Famines and Emperors. New York: Basic Books, 1999 Read More
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