I can still remember the historical pundits of the 1950s and 1960s, with their cockamamie claims that the Egyptians came to the New World and built the pyramids for the Maya, because, naturally, they were too primitive to learn how to pile one stone on top of another. I can hear their voice-overs in dozens of spurious documentaries (imagine Lowell Thomas’s voice): “What happened to these people? Where did they disappear to?”
One answer comes from Christopher Shaw, in his uneven but occasionally brilliant book Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods:
If a golden age existed, it included—along with art and writing, highly developed religious and political systems, artificers and scribes, ritual torture and human sacrifice—cayucos [canoes] floating in waterlily beds, canals thick with protein-rich fish, and the finite cosmos reflected in the waters. If it “fell,” as mny scenarios insist it did, the region became crowded and degraded at the denouement of the classical era. Drought came and apocalyptic wars ensued. In their aftermath, people forgot the old ways and connected them to the past. With the cities reeling, merchant nobles from the coast—putun—imposed themselves and took power. Some of them, in their bourgeois, sentimental fashion, tried to maintain the trappings of grandeur. But the thread had been cut. In the great pyramid temples of the centralized state, the gods fell silent, though not in the houses of the campesinos.
The putun—simultaneously “barbarian” intruders and “merchant warriors,” to [archeologists] Linda Schele and David Freidel—apparently tried to keep alive the connections to tradition, dynasty, and place that lay at the root of the classic peple’s success. But the collective consciousness had moved on. The people “turned their backs on the kings to pursue a less complicated way of living,” as Schele and Freidel put it. hey turned to the forest. In the words of the Popol Vuh, the retreated “under the vines under the trees.”
Tomorrow I will return to this subject with a slightly different point of view.