Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seneca's pyramids: how fast did the Mayan civilization fall?

Monument building cycle of the Mayan civilization. From "Sylvanus G. Morley and George W. Brainerd, The Ancient Maya, Third Edition (Stanford University Press, 1956), page 66.". Courtesy of Diego Mantilla.

Once you give a name to a phenomenon, you can focus your attention on it and learn more and more about it. So, the "Seneca Cliff" idea turns out to be a fruitful one. It tells us that, in several cases, the cycle of exploitation of a natural resource follows a forward skewed curve, where decline is much faster than growth. This is consistent with what the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote: "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." With some mathematical tricks, the result is the following curve:

This curve describes the behavior of several complex systems, including entire civilizations which experienced an abrupt collapse after a long period of relatively slow growth. In my first post on the seneca cliff, I already discussed the collapse of the Mayan Civilization (*)

Here, you can see the the Seneca behavior, although the data for the Maya population density seem to be rather qualitative and uncertain. However, the data that I received recently from Diego Mantilla (see at the beginning of this post) are clear: if you take monument building as a proxy for the wealth of the Mayan civilization, then the collapse was abrupt, surely faster than growth.

Something similar can be said for the ancient Egyptians, although the data for pyramid building are more sparse and uncertain than those for the Maya. Finally, also the Roman civilization appears to have collapsed faster than it grew.

So, the Mayans didn't do better than other civilizations in human history. As other civilizations did, they moved toward their demise by dragging their feet, trying to avoid the unavoidable. They didn't succeed and they didn't realize that opposing the collapse in this way is a classic example of "pushing the levers in the wrong direction". It can only postpone collapse, but in the end makes it more rapid.

Will we do any better than the Mayans? One would hope so, but........

(*) Dunning, N., D. Rue, T. Beach, A. Covich, A. Traverse, 1998, "Human - Environment Interactions in a Tropical Watershed: the Paleoecology of Laguna Tamarindito, Guatemala," Journal of Field Archaeology 25 (1998):139-151.


  1. Professor Malamud described an awareness coming to all here, though not to those in upper chambers:
    "Being on the cusp of decline provokes incisive self-reflection -- as the Greeks called it, anagnorisis: recognition."

  2. I read an article once that had found correlation of completion of record tall rise buildings and imminent crisis. E.g. Manhattan skyscrapers just before the 1st Great Depression (I guess we are in the 2nd now). Asian crisis of the 1990s comes to mind (Thailand) Dubai, etc. How is it on the European Cathedral front? Can we read anything out of that phase in history?

    1. A good point. I read the same for the last of the series of the great Egyptian Pyramids. They completed it in a haste, using expensive stone for tasks which could have been performed with cheaper materials. They wanted to close shop and go home. Waiting for the return of economic growth....

    2. Most interesting: I have just had an entertaining skim through World Heritage sites [ ] looking particularly for Christian Cathedrals in Europe. There seems to have been a wave of building reaching a peak before discontinuity around 1340 AD.

      Perhaps we should distinguish between mere empires, particularly trading empires and their often transient metropolitan or trading hubs, and the usually more enduring civilisations?

      Rome, Maya and Egypt et al can classify as civilisations. Christian Europe similarly seems to have been a civilisation eventually emerged following the demise of Roman civilisation. (Rome’s demise took with it Classical Hellenic legacies). Christian civilisation perhaps reached a ‘peak of building’ in the first half of 14th Century.

      Such building widely across Europe presumably had a relationship with ‘carrying capacity’. Whether the discontinuity then seen in the 14th Century is related to adverse climate (famine) and particularly disease might be argued? Even if it is not clear whether there is a ‘feedback loop’ connecting higher density population and its allied favourable aggregate of ‘productivity’ (prosperity and carrying capacity and religious values) and ‘building-booms’, these populations appear to have become increasingly vulnerable to both widespread disease and to any sudden reduction from peak agricultural productivity.

      (I speculate a narrative that sees Christian civilisation after ‘the 14th C peak’ decline into factions to be replaced by emerging secular orientation, the Rational Enlightenment, and particularly by the industrial period’s unique explosion in both ‘carrying capacity’ and productivity. The modern collapse of Europe that followed a pre-1914 ‘peak’ saw the end for European world hegemony. Industrial ‘carrying capacity’ had come to depend on access to world resources outside the European heartlands. The competition for those resources appears the underlying reason for the collapse of Europe. The subsequent period of recovery from 1946 has been under the aegis of a new hegemon with its much larger ‘heartland’ industrial resources allied with its greater global reach, both military and economic. )

      So ‘next up’ might be global industrial civilisation? At base, ‘carrying capacity’ seen as a population of both consumers and producers, appears historically to depend on the ‘limiting factor’ of soil nitrogen and its continual renewal and replacement. (The current global hegemon the USA arguably would have declined following widespread loss of soil fertility and agricultural profit by the 1920s and was only saved by massive industrial agricultural input in the form of synthetic fertiliser and petroleum-driven machinery.)

      The input of fossil fuels and dependent other resources, and then their depletion, which presumably limits the rate of extraction, might be considered a special case of raised ‘peak carrying capacity’ becoming ever more vulnerable to exogenous shock? We have a vulnerable civilisation not just a vulnerable empire?

      Sorry about the length of the above but you have stimulated the morning reflections!


  3. Good points all of them Phil. It is always nice to look for patterns from earlier times. Then again. even if history has a tendency to repeat itself, there is sometimes something new. As Tolstoy wrote: all happy families are the same, but the unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (or something like it). I am not sure the grand ol man was absolutely correct about that, but there are certainly many reasons for failure.

    Will look into Swedish castles another time....Or viking mounds.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)