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Maya Theater States

General Ideas

What generally occurs when a civilization over-extends is not a complete disappearance but a rapid decline in complexity.

Detroit: Theater Ruins
 The collapse of the Classic Maya period, around 900 CE, is an active academic field, with many conflicting theories and a mountain of literature. While traveling in the Yucatán we are reading Arthur Demarest’s Ancient Maya: the Rise and Fall of the Rainforest Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
One of the terms Demarest uses to describe the period is a “theater-state.” The ruling elite, known as the K’uhul Ajaw, or Holy Lords, were relatively hands-off with respect to economics, social welfare and trade but devoted lots of resources to legitimizing their political and religious authority through monumental architecture, art, pageant, sports spectacles and warfare.

This resource misallocation — taking away from the real needs of the populace, especially in times of stress — led to swelling the elite class, enormous diversions to unproductive types of labor, depredations from unnecessary wars, resentment from disenfranchised youth who were relegated to javelin–fodder, and, of course, ecological decay — as previously elegant eco-agriculture microsystems (using 400–500 species of plants) were consolidated into monocultures and overproduced.

A question Demarest probes is why, in so many areas, did not Mayan leaders respond with effective corrective measures for the stresses generated by internal and external pressures they could not have failed to notice. We generally think of complex societies as problem-solving machines, in which elaborate chains of central command and control “wire” a nation to meet its goals. Yet beginning around the Eighth Century, the Holy Lords were apparently away from the control room.
Demarest thinks the problem was structural. Since the elites of the most classic Maya kingdoms did not farm or manage production of goods, the “real” economy was decentralized to community or family. The role of the Holy Lords was to manage a “false” economy that was derivative, its only marginal utility being that it gave their Kingdoms some sort of patriotic zeal or sense of exceptionalism.
When these derivatives eventually began to unravel, the Holy Lords, like mechanics with a limited set of wrenches, did what they knew best — they intensified ritual activities, built taller and more ornate temples and expensive stages, props, and costumes, and scheduled more performance rituals, wars, and feasting. Contrary to earlier results, however, these measures only prolonged or intensified the problems, led to further disenchantment, which eventually brought about whatever cataclysm dethroned them.



Successive rounds of quantitative easing had diminishing returns. The “real” economy suffered a century-long drought punctuated by severe droughts in CE 810, 860 and 910. Even the “false” economy could not help but feel reality intrude.
Today the theater state is shown in high definition and 3-D, and it resembles in its own way the grand Berlin pageants of Albert Speer as much as the scenes from Apocalypto. Mad-Men have refined the manufacture of consent, to use Chomsky’s phrase, to a fine science, and as in Classic Maya times, military recruitment is viewed as a fortunate outlet for the unemployed.
However, a “classic” period, signifying the peak of empire and also a peak in energy, productivity, and population in most cases, is never sustainable, because it is inherently unbalanced.
Demarest’s insight here is that we tend to characterize every civilization in terms of “preclassic, classic, and postclassic,” but we might do better to think of it as “stable and expanding,” “unstable,” and “shrinking and reconsolidating.” Preclassic Maya agriculture was exceedingly diverse, with agroforestry, household garden plots, rotational field crops, chinampas and aquaponic systems, and perhaps also novel farming techniques we have yet to learn about. So was the postclassic. We have only just recently begun to appreciate that the “slash and burn” found in many parts of the tropics was once a highly productive and ecologically sustainable biochar amendment system when practiced in the ancient ways.
The Mayan preclassic food system was only marginally regional. While trade and tribute brought in salt, chocolate, hardwoods, hard stone, luxuries, textiles, and non-perishable goods, transportation of corn or other staples was largely prohibitive from an energy efficiency standpoint. Moving corn on the back of a man 25 km requires the consumption of 16% of the caloric value of the load. Transport from 100 km would have cost a third of the load in expended caloric energy. Demarest wrote, “Such high transport costs might have been maintained by a few Mayan cities at their peak, but more generally Mayan subsistence economies and markets were probably based on an area of about 20 to 30 km — a day of travel from the major center and its periodic markets.”
Joseph Tainter’s famous 1988 analysis of civilizational collapses argues that what generally occurs when a civilization over-extends is not a complete disappearance but a rapid decline in complexity. Axiomatically, it can be said that the instability experienced at the peak of a culture is a function of over-complexity.


Pablo Lopez Luz, Mexico City 2017


While this might be true of the Maya in some ways, in other respects that analysis fails to satisfy. While the theater state of the Holy Lords reached a peak complexity and then declined, a different type of state followed that increased in complexity over what had existed in the classic period. The end of the theater state led to the cessation of monumental architecture and the disappearance of high status exotic goods and ornaments, but good riddance.
At the same time, although at different times and speeds in different regions, there was a flowering and transformation to the new order. Extensive ecological, archaeological, and settlement pattern studies have found a resurgence of complex agricultural regimes that were well adapted to population levels with no indications of nutritional stress. When the curtains were drawn on the theater state, the health and welfare of the people improved. With the loss of simple monoculture and central authority and the diffusion of complex microfarming diversity and decentralized councils, the new order recaptured stability.
What followed in the postclassic period were a diffusion of distinctive new variants of the classic culture, with strange costumes, long hairstyles, experimentation with new legitimating ideologies, and unusual features in buildings, sculpture and ceramics (e.g.: ubiquitous serpents, brightly colored murals, and the psychedelic temple complex of Tulum).



The Maya that flourish in the Guatemalan highlands and Yucatán today are as populous and even more vigorous economically than during the classic theater state, but they do not generate anything like the art and architecture of their predecessors from 1000 years ago. They don’t need to.
Demarest observed,

For at least 6000 years, the hallmarks of the Western tradition have been linear concepts of time, monocultural agricultural systems, overproduction and exchange of surplus in full-market economies, technology-driven development, a long history of attempts to separate religious and political authority, and judgmental Gods concerned with individual, personal moral conduct. As we learn from the Maya, none of these traits is universal, none of them was characteristic of classic Maya civilization, and none of them is critical to the fluorescence of high civilization.


Too often scholars and the public viewed non-Western societies with an implicit, unconscious condescension. We tend to regard their political and economic systems as incomplete (“less evolved”) versions of our own. Ideology and cosmetology are viewed as detailed esoteric collections of ideas fascinating for scholarly study and public imagination. We also tend to emphasize aspects of ancient religion that attempted control of nature as “primitive science.” In so doing, we ignore the personal and philosophical challenges of experiencing another worldview — an alternative perspective on existence and death.


From an openly philosophical, subjective, and postmodern perspective of our society and its science, we are no wiser than the Maya priests and shamans in the face of these mysteries. For that reason we can study the ancient Maya, and other non-Western cultures, as sources of alternative views of reality and of contemplation of our own culturally ingrained worldviews. You can view the classic Maya as a less developed society trying to control the forces of nature and to survive economically. Or instead, they can be regarded as fellow travelers who simply chose a different path through the darkness.

The pre- and postclassic system of mimicking the diversity and dispersion of the forest allowed the Maya to maintain populations in the millions in the Yucatán for over 1500 years without destroying a rich but fragile tropical environment and biodiversity. They are still here — still engaged in that work. That offers hope for us all.
 The Great Change by Albert Bates

14 Comments on "Maya Theater States"

  1. Makati1 on Sun, 9th Jul 2017 5:41 pm 

    The last paragraph offers hope to those who can live with only the necessities, not wants. To live within the boundary of Mother Nature is not going to happen now. Greed is too rampant. We have far exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet. We have polluted our nest. The race to the extinction cliff has begun and is increasing in speed daily. The West is leading the race and seems to be pulling ahead. We shall see.

  2. MASTERMIND on Sun, 9th Jul 2017 5:47 pm 

    The last law of nature says: that any creature that despoils and outbreeds its natural habitat will be culled to bring its numbers under control and restore a stable environment.

  3. Sissyfuss on Sun, 9th Jul 2017 10:08 pm 

    That photo of Mexico City is akin to an x-ray of a massive tumor in ones brain. In fact looking at it is giving me a tumor.

  4. Makati1 on Sun, 9th Jul 2017 11:22 pm 

    Sissy, that is a perfect picture of the human race. But, like most cities, it concentrates the problem so one can easily see it. For a better lookat some mega cities … Google Earth

    New York City: Lat. 40.707020 Long.-74.006332
    Mexico City: Lat. 19.430447 Long. -99.133129
    Tokyo: Lat. 35.502446 Long. 139,926072

    They make Manila seem small. lol

  5. Makati1 on Sun, 9th Jul 2017 11:56 pm 

    ““Hydrological extremes — floods and droughts — are the most dangerous aspects of global warming because they lead to food and water shortages and that can lead to armed conflict,” said Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. … With deluge following dust, the record book is becoming increasingly difficult to rely on for those who study the weather. The seesaw from one record to its opposite also has problematic implications for water management, storm preparedness and even national security.”

    “The U.S. has seen nine “billion-dollar” weather and climate disasters so far this year, including two floods and a freeze that brought the total to near-record levels, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a report Friday.”

    Wait until there are 90, billion dollar plus events per year and then 900. Buckle up!

  6. Cloggie on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 2:18 am 

    That photo of Mexico City is akin to an x-ray of a massive tumor in ones brain. In fact looking at it is giving me a tumor.

    “There is going to be a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it.”

    I want you to sink on your knees and in tears thank God that he has send president Trump to save your sorry ass. Not that you deserve it, leftie.

  7. Apneaman on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 2:39 am 

    Clog, so 7 months in – how many feet of this new wall has been built so far?

    Don’t you think trump should be saving them, or at the very least do one fucking thing to protect them from threats that are already kicking their ass every day?

    America is closing in on a record number of weather disasters, and it’s not even peak hurricane season

    “there have been nine extreme weather events — each racking up more than $1 billion in losses — during the first half of 2017.

    An average year between 1980 and 2016 had just 5.5 major events , after adjusting for inflation. ”

    California fires spread quickly in record-breaking heat

    Firefighters are struggling to contain wildfires in the US state of California, with heat and dry wind fanning the flames. One of the fires temporarily trapped scores of children and their summer camp counselors.

    OK, your turn to pretend it’s not happening and getting worse – deny, minimize, change subject, conspiracy (grant money of course) attack me with your cartoon labels.

  8. Apneaman on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 2:58 am 

    clog, so how’s that ‘swamp draining’ going for Trump and team conservataed?

    Let’s take a look shall we

    Republican Lawmakers Buy Health Insurance Stocks as Repeal Effort Moves Forward

    “Just as the House Republican bill to slash much of the Affordable Care Act moved forward, Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican and member of Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership team, added a health insurance company to his portfolio.

    An account owned by Conaway’s wife made two purchases of UnitedHealth stock, worth as much as $30,000, on March 24th, the day the legislation advanced in the House Rules Committee, according to disclosures. The exact value of Conaway’s investment isn’t clear, given that congressional ethics forms only show a range of amounts, and Conaway’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

    It was a savvy move. Health industry stocks, including insurance giants like UnitedHealth, have surged as Republicans move forward with their repeal effort, which rolls back broad taxes on health care firms while loosening consumer regulations which prevent insurance companies from denying coverage for medical treatment. UnitedHealth has gained nearly 7 percent in value since March 24.

    He wasn’t the only one. As the health care system overhaul advanced last month on the other side of Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma purchased between $50,000 to $100,000 in UnitedHealth stock”

    No swamp draining. More like flushing an overflowing toilet full of rotting feces and vomit then quickly refilling it with even bigger pile of shit and puke.

    clog, if you have not been clinically diagnosed with dementia then you truly are the dumbest and most naive man child I have ever come across. Your child like belief and enthusiasm for these sub human politician/criminals reminds my of my little nephews and nieces belief and enthusiasm for Santa on the days just before Christmas. Unlike you they will grow out of it.

  9. Cloggie on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 3:11 am 

    America is closing in on a record number of weather disasters, and it’s not even peak hurricane season

    Warmmonger. I like that term.

    Not to deny global warming. We have after all European offshore wind parks to sell to the rest of the world.

  10. Cloggie on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 3:53 am 

    Putin and Trump Stage-Manage a Win-Win Meeting

    I’m not sure how we should bring this to Johnny McCain…

    …but his ISIS darlings have now been defeated in Mossul. This means that Iranian proxy Iraq is incrementing its influence, hand in hand with that other Iranian proxy Syria.

    And aparently Trump is not willing to confront Russia head-on over Syria and try to make it a US proxy after all, which was the whole purpose of the Syrian “civil war” in the first place, a war that in reality was a war of at 50% foreign mercenaries, paid for by Turkey, KSA, Qatar and probably the US. The emir of Qatar admitted that foreign jihadists were paid from a base camp in Jordan, run by KSA, Qatar and the US.

    After Iraq, Syria is the next major US strategic defeat and a victory for the Eurasian SCO alliance, achieving a sort of reversed Monroe doctrine [*] of pushing the Americans out of Eurasia.

    [*] – Monroe doctrine of 1823 stated that there should be no European colonies in the Americas and that South-America was basically the US backyard (currently America is the backyard of the Americas or so it seems, but perhaps Trump succeeds in doing something about it)

    Oh, and it could very well be that defying Qatar is going to be the next fully-fledged Iranian proxy as well, thanks to the behavior of KSA. One can only shiver when considering the fate of the largest US base in the ME in Qatar.

  11. Cloggie on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 4:00 am 

    clog, so how’s that ‘swamp draining’ going for Trump and team conservataed?

    Excellent, actually. See for yourself how the swamp is fuming of anger:


  12. Davy on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 5:29 am 

    I have several books about Native Americans and Mayans. For us moderns to compare the Mayan collapse with ours is really disingenuous. The Mayans had a culture that is far different than ours. We point at their elites like they are like ours and this is just not true. These people lived their myths from the bottom to the top. Their culture was not a planetary killer. It may have been a localized one but that is a human trait. The real Mayan collapse was the introduction of the European killers of the enlightenment. An enlightenment that was really planetary suicide. Europeans unleashed evil on the world and we called that enlightened. WTF.

    Humans have always destroyed their locals and what we did when populations were scaled properly was move on. This left the process of succession to do what it does. Our destruction then was in scale to a dynamic planetary environment. We left that scale with widespread agriculture and the industrial revolution. Comparing Mayans to what is going on now is a joke. Still this is a good article because we should reflect on our destruction through historical records. History should teach us but too bad we interpret that history to suit our twisted narratives of exceptionalism.

  13. Davy on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 5:50 am 

    “What Russian Journalists Think Of How American Reporters Cover Putin & Trump”

    “the way the U.S. media has covered the Russia scandal has made “Putin seem to look much smarter than he is, as if he operates from some master plan.” The truth, Zygar told me, “is that there is no plan—it’s chaos.”

    “By way of an example, Zygar narrated what he saw as the total disorder that has marked Russia’s military campaign in Syria, which began with a surprise incursion of air power, in September, 2015. Putin seems to consider the intervention a success, because it outmaneuvered Western attempts to isolate him and elevated him to the position of global statesman; but, whatever the achievements, they came out of an absolutely slapdash policy, according to Zygar. “Nothing was calculated,” Zygar said. “There was no strategy, no preparatory work, no coördination with Iran, none with Turkey either, which is how we almost ended up in a war—not to mention the huge amount of money that was simply stolen in the course of this operation.”

    “According to Zygar’s sources, Putin forced Russia’s military prosecutor into retirement, in April, before he could deliver a report to the country’s upper house of parliament that would have revealed substantial financial losses in Syria due to corruption. Such cynicism and malfeasance is more the rule than the exception, Zygar said. He retold the story of how Putin showed Oliver Stone a video that was supposedly of Russian forces bombing ISIS fighters – “our aviation at work,” Putin told Stone – which turned out to be a lifted clip from 2013 of U.S. pilots attacking Taliban positions in Afghanistan. Zygar shook his head with laughter. “They couldn’t even film a two-minute video!”

    “The most important thing that U.S. reporters should remember, Shleinov told me, is that “money is fleeing Russia in all directions, people are trying to invest anywhere they can, to get their assets out before the secret services or their competitors show up and try and take them all.” On the whole, Shleinov said, a wealthy Russian—even a politically connected one—is likely buying real estate abroad “as a place to run to,” not on Putin’s orders.”

    “That echoes another refrain I heard from several Russian journalists: that Putin, like a naughty kid in school, finds all this attention—even if its uniformly critical— flattering and even rewarding, a salve for years of feeling ignored. Zygar told me that, as far he understands, Putin “likes the image of himself as a kind of Bond villain, that Fareed Zakaria calls him the most powerful man in the world. That’s what he has been aspiring for this whole time, that he is respected, on the top of the world.” When I spoke with Anton Zhelnov, a political reporter at Dozhd, a scrappy and creative independent cable channel, which is in perpetual danger of shutting down, he said that his contacts in the Kremlin can’t help but be pleased by the multiple U.S. investigations into Russian interference, whether by the media or Congress. “Yes, it’s unpleasant, but at the same time they like that Russia is being discussed all the time, that Russia has become a topic in American politics. They like this very much, and don’t try and hide it in private conversations,” Zhelnov said.”

  14. Sissyfuss on Mon, 10th Jul 2017 6:44 pm 

    Clogbuster, God had nothing to do with the election of President Carbon so why thank him. Trump appeals to your racist brain more than he repulses you with his anti renewable energy policies. You want it both ways much like your veneration of Adolph, the sheep in wolfs clothing. And I don’t deserve the calamity coming down on my and everyone elses head but am going to get clobbered regardless. Life ain’t fair for if it was you would be reincarnated as a roll of toilet paper in a blacks only lavatory.

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