UI prof's Maya research aims to illuminate commoners

UI prof's Maya research aims to illuminate commoners

At the height of Maya classical culture, a drought may have been responsible for the civilization's downturn, which may offer clues to what we may face in a combination of growing population and dwindling resources.

That's part of the reason a University of Illinois anthropology professor, Lisa Lucero, plans to continue to visit Belize's dry season, studying the ultimate in wet – 25 freshwater pools that help her understand Maya culture from the farmer's side as well as the king's.

Lucero notes that the massive temples of Maya civilization have their share of researchers, studying royalty, human sacrifice and the evolution of sport, while she's rare in studying what the little guy did.

As she writes in her book, "Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers" (University of Texas Press), "the average commoner was an active participant (in rituals) and had some say in the amount of tribute paid as well as to whom. Commoners were willing to contribute surplus (crops) because rulers offset problems that arose as a result of seasonal vagaries – not enough or too much water."

In a part of the world where there's "not a drop of water" for months at a time, in normal years, in addition to other droughts that occur less frequently, the Maya rulers were "classic water managers," Lucero says.

On a hot August day in Urbana that's chilly by Belize standards, Lucero talks about her work, funded by the National Geographic Society and an Arnold O. Beckman Award, in the southern Maya lowlands.

This year, and, she hopes next year, she has worked with divers in the limestone pools of Cara Blanca, or White Face, a reference to the exposed limestone.

Some of the caves may be as much as 200 feet deep, a dangerous challenge for divers. Lucero said divers are concerned about the mixture of gases needed for the depth – they include helium.

But the divers have already been useful, she said, in collecting artifacts such as sacred water jars, and she hopes the core samples they've taken using common plastic plumbing pipe would yield clues to the drought.

So far, divers have explored eight of 25 known pools.

In the sediment that falls constantly to the pool floor, Lucero hopes to find a record of hundreds of years. Minute evidence can speak loudly, she says; for instance, a plethora of grass pollens could indicate that the jungles' trees had died off for a period.

In the pools and in nearby trenches, Lucero's team has found everything from water jars to a bone from an ancient giant sloth, a species that died off 10,000 years ago. If the sloth was brought down by a hunter, it could help date the entry of humans into the lands that became Maya.

The caves and sinkholes, called cenotes, were portals to the underworld, Lucero said.

Maya structures are found near at least two of them. There, pools would have been sacred entrances to the depths, the source of life through water and earth.

The Mayas needed a reliable source of water for massive farms that fed the temples. Lucero said the Cara Blanca pools have a constant depth, fed from subterranean sources.

When the Mayas were hit with drought somewhere between 800 and 900 A.D., the pools would have been especially important as life-givers.

The water jars she found could have been offerings to the rain god or some other god, asking for an end to the drought, she said.

Ironically, the water may not have been very healthful to drink.

Northwestern University's Patricia Beddows, one of the divers as well as a hydrologist, found the water in the largest pool was full of minerals that could have led to kidney stones.

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