Due to the compressed nature of the Block plan teaching schedule, in general this would be presented on Day #2 of a 2-3 day section on each culture. Each of these 2-3 day sections are equivalent to about three weeks of a semester calendar.
Environmental Concerns and Culture in Mesoamerica: an overview
The two readings for this day give an overview of Mesoamerican water management (Lucero) and look at the cascading effects of climate change and drought in Syria, a situation that students are probably at least somewhat familiar with (Kelly et al.) The juxtaposition of these two articles allows for the discovery that water issues are not something unique to the present day and the era of 21st-century climate change. Discuss with students what they know about the ecology and environment of Mesoamerica; they likely think it’s all tropical jungles, but you can show slides of desert parts and discuss arid landscapes. Show how even portions with a great deal of rainfall need to find ways to contain and store their water. Discuss how shortage of water can lead to conflict and war as well.
Key Readings: Lucero, Lisa J. “Water Management in Lowland Mesoamerica.” Report for UNESCO. http://www.anthro.illinois.edu/faculty/lucero/documents/10-LuceroUNESCO.pdf Read pp. 1-12 top (end of paragraph). Kelly, Colin L. et al. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and Implications of the Recent Syrian Drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(11) · March 2015.
We generally tend to think that of drought as the main problem related to water, but in tropical lowland areas, another issue may be maximizing swampy and seasonally flooded lands, as well as channeling and controlling large amounts of rain. Discuss what the term “islotes“, their use at the site of San Lorenzo, and how this shows the depth of time in Mesoamerica, given that the site flourished ca. 1500-1100 BCE.
Key Reading: Miller, Mary. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012. (General course text) Monument 52.
Ancient Oaxaca and Water Control
One of the interesting features of the site of Monte Albán in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, is how it sustained a fairly large population of about 25,000 with only a single small spring at the top of the mountaintop where it is sited. The reading discusses how the people at the site made the most of the rain they did have, using several sizes of drainage channels, and collecting and de-silting water in large reservoirs on the sides of the site. Hoobler’s article discusses the artworks which show a preoccupation with that water and associated abundance and fertility. Some good questions might include: What does it mean that the symbols of the “control” of water (effigy figures who hold water jars) are found in the tombs of the elite?
Key Reading: Hoobler, Ellen.“The Future in the Past, the Past in the Future: Monte Albán and the Zapotecs.” In El Futuro: Proceedings of the XXXI International Colloquium of Art History of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Mexico DF: UNAM 2010.
The Megacity of Teotihuacan: How to ration water for a huge population
The case for Maya droughts as the reason why civilization fell in those areas is fairly well-known in the general population, but Teotihuacan is a lesser-known and understood civilization. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time of its apogee ca. 500 AD, and yet it fell dramatically, across only a few decades in the 700s. Many theories for why have been proposed – there is evidence of burning in the central core of the city, there may have been invaders or internal destructors. However, recent evidence shows that megadroughts began to occur at about the time the city began to diminish. First, discuss the obvious importance of water for the city and use the website Mexicolore, particularly pages on the coccoliztli illness.
Key Reading: Acuna-Soto, Rodolfo et al. “Drought, epidemic disease, and the fall of classic period cultures in Mesoamerica (AD 750-950).
The Early Classic Maya and Water
The case of the Maya collapse due to drought is perhaps the best known to laymen. To complicate this picture, to give an indication of early Maya cities, and to show the importance of water in Maya ritual and art, the French article discusses the case of Palenque, with plentiful water which needed to be managed with a still-existing aqueduct. (Use the video on this, in web resources, to give them a sense of scale and size.) Students will get to practice new vocabulary, such as bajos (seasonally flooded swamps) and micro-watersheds (the use of existing and man-made depressions in the ground for storing water) and get a sense of the complexity of Maya control of water and their surrounding environment.
Key Reading: French, Kirk et al. “Archaeological and Epigraphic Evidence for Water Management and Ritual at Palenque,” in Precolumbian Water Management edited by Lisa J. Lucero and Barbara W. Fash, 144-152. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006.
The Collapse of the Ancient Maya
As highland sites further south in the Yucatán Peninsula began to dry up, populations were forced farther and farther north, and developed strategies to deal with their new surroundings. There was much more development of the cenotes, naturally-occurring caverns and reservoirs in limestone that are prevalent in the northern Maya region. The Haug et al. is a fascinating case that looks at sediment cores from the Venezuelan basin. Students can discuss the broader question of how to find answers to questions that have not been asked before.
Key Reading: Haug, Gerald H. et al. “Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization.” Science (299) 2003: 1731-1735.
The Venice of the New World: Mexico City
After examining how numerous cultures such as the Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos and Maya were dealing at times with severe scarcities of water, the Aztecs literally built their capital on an island in the middle of a lake system. The finding of the island was an essential part of their myth and lore, enshrined even today in Mexican culture, and shown indirectly on the flag of Mexico. While managing a city with minimal bedrock (largely created agricultural lands and canals for transportation was already a challenge), Mundy’s article made clear that the Aztecs centered a great deal of ritual around the celebration of the diversity of water in their environment, making offerings in whirlpools within the lake, and slowly managing this aquatic ecosystem.
Key Reading: Mundy, Barbara E. “Water and the Sacred City,” in The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, the Life of Mexico City. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Central Mexico Today
As a counterpoint to the Aztec class, this session looks at how centuries of the Spanish colonial efforts to drain the lake systems at the center of Mexico have succeeded a bit too well. With climate change and a decrease in rainfall, the Mexico City region, a megacity with an estimated 20 million inhabitants, is suffering from lack of water. Considering the range of strategies that that pre-Columbian peoples pursued at different times and places, and taking into account the solutions in the article (and the trailer for H2OMX documentary, in web resources section), what are some ideas that you have about how Central Mexico (or other parts of the region) can confront the water crisis in which it now finds itself?
Key Reading: Romero Lankao, Patricia. “Water in Mexico City: What Will Climate change bring to its history of water-related hazards and vulnerabilities?” Environment and Urbanization 22 (1), 2010: 157-178.