Imagine the ceramic water jar as it topples into the water, to drift down and down through improbable depths, falling endlessly in slo-mo, settling at last into the silt and the centuries. This is an arc that echoes, in a way, the trajectory of Lisa Lucero’s research, a journey of discovery that has taken the University of Illinois anthropologist into the jungles of Belize and through two thousand years of a civilization’s brilliant life and strange senescence. Her quest: to understand the demise of the Maya civilization. Her thesis: that the Maya kings were unable to shield their subjects from extreme drought brought on by climate change. Her evidence: waiting, deep in the water, on the brink of the underworld.
Water is ephemeral in the Central American lowlands. Some areas are endowed with lakes and rivers; many more are not. In years of plentiful rain, crops are plentiful, too. In years of heat and drought, not so much. The weather flows in a pattern of six months dry, six months wet. Some years simply bring more rain than others.
The revolution wrought by the rulers of the indigenous Maya civilization – which flourished spectacularly in the first millennium after the birth of Christ – was a revolution of water. When drought came, the people could drink, thanks to their rulers, who’d captured water in limestone reservoirs.
“Areas that didn’t have water – this is where you see the most powerful rulers,” Lucero notes. “If there was water, then the kings didn’t have anything to supply.”
For the past 20 years, Lucero has been traveling to Belize to study the connections among water and power and the events that tipped their equilibrium and forever changed life in Central America. In 1997, she received exclusive license from the Belizean government to excavate Yalbac, a site of six temples. (See map, p. 35.) Not far off lies Cara Blanca (“White Face”), a massive limestone deposit that cradles 25 steep-sided sinkholes. Called cenotes (see-NO-tays) in Spanish, these pools, perpetually fed by the region’s deep water table, were sacred to the Maya as portals to the underworld or Xibalba.
The deepest of these is known to Lucero and her team as Pool 1.
A civilization’s collapse
Drawn to this mystery from a young age, Lucero was inspired to study the political dynamics of Maya life while still a graduate student at UCLA. Her work, Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers, describes how the Maya’s sophisticated water systems allowed the kings to link themselves to the gods (and political power) – until long-term drought upended their way of life. For Lucero, the story, as yet incomplete, of how climate change brought down the Maya is a narrative of vulnerability vivid with implications for the present times.
The more they relied on reservoirs,” Lucero observes, “the more they were impacted by drought.” This connection, she says, “really made me think about the impact of climate change on society.”
“Diving for – looking for – ancient Maya offerings is helping me explain how people respond and deal with climate change and climate change itself.”
Portals to the underworld
Each May for the past three years, Lucero has finished up her teaching on the Urbana campus, then boarded a plane for Belize. Meeting with her dive/video/archaeo/geo/bushwhack team, she has proceeded to an anthropological frontier exotic and intimidating as any in modern science. An azure circle in the green depths of the Belizean jungle, Pool 1 is 330 feet across with the ruin of a ceremonial building clinging to its western lip. The journey to the bottom, 220 feet down, is epic – a two-minute descent, a half-hour or so on the bottom, and the 90-minute rise necessary to avoid the bends (which divers also forestall by breathing a special mix of gases).
At approximately 100 feet, the slopes are girdled by two enormous striations of fossils – mostly undisturbed, though underwater videographer Marty O’Farrell brought up two huge bones from a giant sloth in 2011 and further specimens in 2012. Obscured by silt deposits and liquid layers of hydrogen sulfide, the pool also bristles with debris fallen from the surface – some centuries old, some from recent hurricanes. An enormous underwater cave remains an alluring enigma. For O’Farrell, who runs a dive shop and does work for National Geographic, “The pools of Cara Blanca are a diver’s dream – they seem to really get under your skin like nowhere I have dove before.”
The cenotes were sacred to the Maya as portals to the underworld, a key stop in the soul’s journey after death. The underworld was believed to harbor mythological beings and to give off real clouds, mist and thunder. Portals were imbued, Lucero points out, with tremendous power and “an ambivalence, a fine line between good and evil.”
“It’s very dangerous, the closer you get.”
Such places do not readily give up their secrets even when approached by modern technology. Across three years of diving at Cara Blanca, Lucero’s teams have surfaced with an eclectic array of evidence. Sediment cores have yielded ancient soil and pollen samples indicating lean and lush years, as well as gypsum signaling periods of drought. Tiny freshwater shells offer gauges of rainfall and temperature through time. Rings from trees long fallen into the pool may provide ancient records of growth through conditions dry and wet. And the fossil beds embrace huge stories of their own, yet to be told.
For Lucero, among the most significant finds are ceramic sherds of water vessels, some retrieved from the relative shallows of an underwater slope directly below the ruined ceremonial building. (Accessible only by deep trenches dug by looters, the structure, which still holds artifacts, is beginning, alas, to slide into the pool; absent funds for excavation, its secrets may soon be lost underwater – a matter about which Lucero struggles to stay calm.) “There’s increasing evidence that the people started to visit Cara Blanca much more frequently during the period between 800 and 900,” she says. “We find those jars, and they predominantly date to this period. And there’s increasing evidence of several multiyear droughts, lasting from three to eight years.”
By A.D. 900, she adds, “the whole area was abandoned.”
Lucero believes that people may have come to the cenotes both for water and to conduct rituals asking the gods to bring rain – rituals made at extremely high cost.
“During drought the Maya would sacrifice their young sons, who were the most important members of the patrimonial society,” she says. “Sons represent the continuance of family. To sacrifice them means desperation. It’s a last ditch. There is evidence for adolescent remains in the sacred well at Chichén Itzá.
“I expect to find the same thing at Cara Blanca.”
Climate change, past and future
In May 2013, Lucero plans to return to Belize and Pool 1, with – she hopes – sufficient grant money to find many more clues as to what befell the Maya. Her plans call for retrieving artifacts, studying the information preserved in the soil and the trees and the fossils through centuries of underwater entrapment, and excavating and restoring the ceremonial structure. As well as yielding more evidence of Maya visits to the sacred cenotes and the rituals they undertook there, the research will enhance the accumulation of climatological data about drought during the last years of the Maya civilization. Funding for the project is currently under review by the National Science Foundation.
“Everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘history repeats itself,’” Lucero observes. “That’s not necessarily a good thing. We’re out trying to look at history and evaluate: What can we learn? And what can we avoid? The major challenge is to get people to listen.”
Listen to the story of the Maya – a story of a changing climate and its impact on a people, a story whispered by ruins robed in the jungles of Central America and echoing up from the impossible depths of the cenotes at the threshold of the underworld.