Civilizations rise and fall depending on many things especially weather conditions, volcanic eruptions, poor financing abilities, foreign invasion by stronger entities, etc. What is a constant is how they always rise and fall. Failure comes on the heels of the greatest successes in many cases. One thing in particular, any shifts in climate from either direction of warmer or colder leads to agricultural difficulties.
One thing is increasingly easy to see: civilizations that destroy jungles create drought conditions that are far worse than say, plains or river civilizations. That is, Egypt, for example, was flooded like clockwork for thousands of years and so the civilization there was very long and fruitful to an astonishing degree. But empires built deep in jungles always leads to clearing out the jungles and then turning it into grasslands (corn/wheat/rice, etc.). This is a total disaster if there is a huge population surge!
Why, may we ask. Jungles are the world’s lungs. Cut down the trees and the rains cease. Here is a news story this week about one of several jungle kingdoms that killed itself due to deforestation: Classic Maya civilization collapse related to modest rainfall reductions:
The study combines records of past climate changes from stalagmites and shallow lakes to model reductions in summer rainfall and reduced tropical storm activity over the region. The results show rather modest rainfall reductions between times when the classic Maya civilization flourished and its collapse — between AD 800-950. These reductions amount to only 25 to 40 percent in annual rainfall. But they were large enough for evaporation to become dominant over rainfall, and open water availability was rapidly reduced. The data suggest that the main cause was a decrease in summer storm activity.
First off, a 40% reduction is not ‘modest’ in any way, shape or form. So why did the authors contend this??? A 25% drop is also not ‘modest’. A 5-10% drop would be ‘modest’. For example, if a disease killed off 40% of the people, this would be called a ‘great plague’ and a ‘big die-off’ not a ‘modest uptick in deaths’. So the story here is about a collapse in rain amounts that are severe, not slight.
Furthermore, all of these jungle kingdoms that grew huge and then very suddenly collapsed didn’t create permanent deserts. They all reverted back to jungles again! Without exception! This is a very salient point when we look at today’s world: all the jungles are being systematically destroyed by human farming and timber cutting. What happens next is very easy to see: it rains less.
One of the first Mesoamerican societies, the Olmec inhabited the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico. The first signs of the Olmec are around 1400 BC in the city of San Lorenzo, the main Olmec settlement which was supported by two other centers, Tenochtitlan and Potrero Nuevo. The Olmec were master builders with each of the major sites containing ceremonial courts, house mounds, large conical pyramids and stone monuments including the colossal head that they are most known for. The Olmec civilization relied heavily on trade, both between different Olmec regions and with other Mesoamerican societies. Because they were one of the earliest and most advanced Mesoamerican cultures at the time, they are often considered the mother culture of many other Mesoamerican cultures.
Where did they go?
Around 400 BC the eastern half of the Olmec’s lands was depopulated- possibly due to environmental changes. They may have also relocated after volcanic activity in the area. Another popular theory is that they were invaded, but no one knows whom the invaders might be.
These were corn farmers and were early users of the new food source. The Inca farmed terrace areas that had few trees in the first place and grew many tubers such as potatoes and yams. But the Olmec were corn growers and corn notoriously sucks out the fertility of any ground it grows.
Corn also needs lots of water to grow well. So farmers have to increase areas being cleared for corn growth as the previous fields fail. This widens the area around cities which were founded foolishly, locking everyone in one place. Corn farmers in North America, for the most part, lived in bark or earth huts and moved frequently except for the cliff dwellers of New Mexico and Arizona. These had to be finally abandoned as the corn failed.
Rice farming has the same impact on rain amounts. Clearing the jungles to grow it leads to a desiccation of the atmosphere which leads to too little water to feed the crops. This, too, was fixed by either farming in mountainous terrain or moving fields frequently. But jungle empires built on flatlands grew very fast and very great in less than 200 years and then would suddenly totally collapse due to the desiccation of the atmosphere.
The Khmer Empire grew out of the kingdom of Chenla in what is now Cambodia around the 9th century AD and became one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia. The empire is known to most people as the civilization that built Angkor, Cambodia’s capital city. The Khmer were an incredibly powerful and wealthy culture who were open to several belief systems including Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, which were the empire’s official religions. Their power also included military might as they fought many wars against the Annamese and Chams.
The Egyptian model was totally different. They didn’t depend on rain on their fields. They depended on rain falling in central Africa at the headwaters of the Blue and White Nile rivers. Telling the difference between jungle destruction and farming on open plains is critical: any time any humans destroy the equatorial rain forests, the water that condenses over these jungles no longer does this and the rain stops.
We see this today. It rains less and less in the equatorial regions and this is nearly entirely the fault of humans systematically reducing the jungles to toothpicks or in the case of Asia, chopsticks. The loss of shade, for example, dries out the soil. Gases from peat that is exposed to the sun adds to the CO2 concentration. If humans cease doing this, the jungles will slowly return in probably less than a few centuries.
The Khmer had very sophisticated canal systems to feed water into the fields and huge cities. But this failed due to evaporation over the entire region and all the other people living in the near-by climate sector suffered, too. As always, when we place blame for what is happening in the world, we must look carefully at all the factors. And the #1 change in the world we see today is the gigantic population explosion going on in what was once ‘jungles’. In Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and the equatorial islands we see the same thing: masses of humans frantically cutting down jungles.
This destruction is directly connected to the huge population boom going on in these places. And it doubles in size every other generation. This is a classic ‘hockey stick’ problem: when doubling anything, it suddenly takes off to infinity and there is nothing to do but terminate it. The sudden total removal and destruction of jungle societies when they made it too dry is a lesson we have to heed. The cold north can reduce CO2 production to zero and we will still have ‘global warming’ due to the equatorial regions being stripped of all greenery and shade.
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