USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

June 2, 2013

Cacao in Mesoamerican Culture: More Than A Tasty Treat

Filed under: research — collins @ 8:36 pm

In 1995, Keith Prufer and his team of archaeologists made a significant discovery while working in a cave in southwestern Belize. They uncovered a previously untouched and well-preserved burial chamber that contained artifacts and the human remains of the individual buried there. Most surprisingly, they found five cacao seeds, which has since opened discussions and shed light on the many uses of cacao in pre-Colombian Mesoamerican culture.

The Bats’ub Cave, where the discovery was made, is located in an uninhabited area of southwestern Belize. The closest settlements, Uxbenká and Pusilhá, are 22 km and 30 km away from the Cave, respectively (see map below). Though people did not live near the cave, the Maya had spiritual beliefs associated with them, and it was not surprising to find a burial site within it. What did surprise the archaeologists was the amount of recoverable artifacts, including the five cacao seeds. They attributed this to the environment within the cave, which preserved organic material that otherwise would have decomposed centuries before.

Cacao is a common crop in southern Belize and the surrounding regions. Archaeologists believe that the people inhabiting this region grew very similar cacao varieties over 1000 years ago. Cacao plants require soil that is well-drained and rich in organic material, and is usually found growing in the shade of nitrogen-fixing trees. These ideal soil conditions are found in the area directly surrounding the Bats’ub Cave, and at many other sites across the Yucatán Peninsula.
Archaeologists combined their knowledge of modern cacao use with recovered artifacts and colonial accounts to understand how cacao was used in pre-Colombian times. Much like today, cacao was prepared as a sweetened food, and was also used to make beverages. These drinks often contained coffee or chili peppers. Vessels that were specially marked for use in drinking cacao have been found at Maya sites.
Beyond consumption, cacao was highly valued for a variety of uses. It was often depicted in inscriptions alongside bundles of cloth, indicating its significance as a commodity. It was also used as a form of currency, further speaking to how cacao was ingrained in Mesoamerican society. Elites used cacao as one of their many status symbols, yet it was used in public and domestic rituals by people of all social classes.
Religious beliefs and rituals of the Maya heavily involved cacao. The Popul Vuh,cacao at the Bats’ub Cave burial site, cacao was significant in rituals surrounding an individual’s death. Items of value to the deceased, including cacao, were placed with the body into the grave to accompany the deceased on the journey to the afterlife. It was also consumed by the mourners during the burial process, the funeral ceremony, and at ceremonies marking anniversaries of the death.
Cacao’s common presence in the sacred rituals of marriage and mourning indicates its depth and spread in Maya culture. The discovery of the cacao seeds at Bats’ub Cave further strengthen the hypothesis that cacao was not just a commodity or status symbol, but also a key part of worship and rituals. As demonstrated by the evidence presented, cacao evidently remains an important economic and cultural force in Mesoamerica today.

This post was authored by:

Sydney Fishman is a sophomore pursuing a BS in Environmental cacao at the Bats’ub Cave burial site, cacao was significant in rituals surrounding an individual’s death. Items of value to the deceased, including cacao, were placed with the body into the grave to accompany the deceased on the journey to the afterlife. It was also consumed by the mourners during the burial process, the funeral ceremony, and at ceremonies marking anniversaries of the death.
Cacao’s common presence in the sacred rituals of marriage and mourning indicates its depth and spread in Maya culture. The discovery of the cacao seeds at Bats’ub Cave further strengthen the hypothesis that cacao was not just a commodity or status symbol, but also a key part of worship and rituals. As demonstrated by the evidence presented, cacao evidently remains an important economic and cultural force in Mesoamerica today.

This post was authored by:

Sydney Fishman is a sophomore pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Oceans, Life, and People. She is interested in marine and coastal policy and eventually hopes to pursue a master’s degree in this area.



Tiffany Chu is a junior majoring in Health and Humanity from Vancouver, Canada. Although Tiffany is not a environmental studies major, she has always had an interest in the climate and learning about different civilizations. This is Tiffany’s second time participating in one of USC Dornsife’s Problems Without Passports programs.

Prufer, Keith M., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave.” Ethnohistory 54.2 (2007): 273-301.

The Uneven Maya Collapse

Filed under: research — collins @ 8:32 pm

Jared Diamond’s Collapse identifies five major factors contributing to the collapse of civilizations. Two such factors – the environmental damages inflicted by a society, and its subsequent efforts (or lack of efforts) to mitigate those damages – are believed to have been central to the collapse of the Maya Civilization around the 9th century AD. Diamond’s five-factor model is expanded upon in a paper called “Kax and kol: Collapse and resilience in lowland Maya civilization” (Dunning et al., 2012).

Applying Julian Steward’s Theory of Culture Change, Dunning and his colleagues discuss three factors determining the magnitude to which societies collapse, and the degree to which they are able to recover: the availability of alternative options for change, the ability of the society to abandon the status quo and adopt one of these alternatives, and the society’s capacity for resilience. Taking this sociopolitical model and the geography of the Maya region in to account, it becomes evident that the elevated interior region (EIR) of the Maya occupied land (modern Belize, Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula) was more vulnerable to collapse than lower-lying, coastal areas.

The geography and climate of the Yucatán peninsula made the EIR especially vulnerable to drought and, when combined with anthropogenic environmental degradation, was likely the cause of the depopulation and collapse of Maya communities in the region. The Yucatán lies atop a carbonate karst platform that retains very little water. The bedrock is porous and made of easily soluble limestone and gypsum, causing the majority of the rainfall to be drained internally. This meant that aside from a few depressions and springs that were low enough to reach the water table, there was no year round access to water in the EIR by the ancient Maya. The lack of perennial bodies of water meant that the ancient Maya depended primarily on the seasonal rains to water their crops.  This region of Central America is extremely dependent on the south-to-north seasonal migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone for its seasonal rains. The failure of this migration can lead to severe droughts in the area and there is significant evidence that episodes of severe drought contributed to the Maya collapse. Finally, widespread deforestation in the region may have exacerbated the drought episodes. Without adequate tree coverage, the soil in the EIR could no longer retain any moisture or allow for the drainage of water into shallow seasonal basins in the area (Dunning et al., 2012).

Whereas portions of the Maya civilization located in the EIR were largely depopulated by the dawn of the tenth century AD, Maya sites located along the coastal plains show evidence of occupation well in to the thirteenth century, with the ruins at Lamanai indicating human population up until the year 1500. As shown in the geographic cross-section provided by the Dunning, et al., 2012 paper, communities located in the region marked “rivers, cenotes, wetland fields” had year-round access to groundwater, with the water table often rising high enough to saturate the soil and provide for a fertile, flooded landscape. In times of drought, whereas inland communities were left with no source of water, those in the lower regions could rely on wetland agriculture and only had to dig a few meters at most to obtain water. Although archaeologists note the collapse of sociopolitical institutions in all parts of the Maya civilization, actual declines in human population were much less notable in these areas.

This cross section from the Dunning paper gives an idea of which areas had access to the perennial water table, and which had to rely entirely on rainfall for water.

Based on an understanding of the Maya geography and applying the frameworks for collapse developed by Diamond and Dunning, it becomes evident that the Maya collapse, though widespread, was not universal and did not have the same impacts on population in all parts of the region.

This post was authored by Austin Reagan and Santiago Fernandez- Barrera

Works Cited:

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Group, New York, New York, USA,

Dunning, Nicholas P., Timothy P. Beach and Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach. March 2012. “Kax and kol: Collapse and resilience in lowland Maya civilization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 109: 3652-3657.

An Understandable Misconception

Filed under: research — collins @ 8:27 pm

There is a misconception to those unfamiliar with the world of Maya studies that the many different Maya polities were part of one large Maya “kingdom” or “empire”. While there is considerable evidence suggesting that Mayan polities could have been connected, there is also a large gap in evidence that suggests the theory is flawed.

In our research, we focused on the four main polities in the Southern Belize region. These four polities–Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, Pusilhá, and Uxbenká–were in fact similar in many ways. All four polities have their larger structures built into the natural topography; for example, religious temples were often built on top of natural hills, increasing their size and their presence in the landscape. The polities also all lacked vaulted architecture and had few masonry superstructural walls: in the Petén, stone blocks were cemented together with mortar, whereas in Belize, the stones were not joined with mortar but instead were cut so precisely that they fit exactly together within the structures. In addition, the ball courts in the southern Belize region were enclosed by walls, and very few hieroglyphic monuments were present at any of the sites. Finally, the content of the sites’ lunar calendars were inconsistent with that of other areas in the Maya region (Braswell and Prufer 2009).

In addition to these similarities, Braswell and Prufer (2009) note the generally accepted belief that these four sites all shared the same periods of occupation, with Uxbenka and Pusilha dating from the Early Classic to the Late Classic periods, and Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun from the Late Classic into the Terminal Classic periods. Hammond (qt. in Braswell and Prufer, 2009) actually asserts that the latter two sites in fact functioned as a single regional capital, with Nim Li Punit functioning as the “dynastic focus” of the region and Lubantuun as the administrative center. Braswell and Prufer (2009) demonstrate that Uxbenka was an important polity until at least the late 700s AD, meaning that it would have overlapped in time with both Nim Li Punit and Lubantuun; and that many of the major Southern Belize sites were thriving during the 8th century AD.

All these similarities make it understandable to support the hypothesis that many Maya polities, or possibly all of them, were part of much larger Maya kingdoms, or even one single mighty empire. However, due to a lack of consistent evidence their theory is quite easily challenged.

The belief that ancient Mayan polities were highly interconnected to each other was seemingly supported by historical evidence- yet actually lacked several critical research aspects. Most significantly, there was a lack of specific chronological evidence within the various polities (although in general the occupation dates of the sites seemed to overlap). In fact of the major polities, Lubantuun was the only site to have ceramic chronological dating. Even so, they lacked detailed hieroglyphic dates- despite having 3 ballcourt markers. With the lack of further evidence, more about Lubantuun and other polities dynastic histories cannot be supported. Similarly in Uxbenka- another major polity in the region-  only 3 hieroglyphic dates were discovered. These dates were not verified by ceramic studies or radiometric assays until the current archaeological project today. Finally, Nim Li Punit had hieroglyphic monuments that only dated to a narrow time frame and have not been analyzed in detail, limiting the support of historical evidence from that polity. These various pieces of historical evidence are further limited by their various sources- meaning that data cannot easily be compared (Braswell and Prufer 2009).

In addition to a narrow time frame, Nim Li Punit stelae never showed connection to other polities in the northern region, like Copan or Quirigua. In fact, stelae from Nim Li Punit never showed full emblem glyphs or important people from that area. This suggests that there was either no voluntary connection with other polities in the region, or simply lack of recognizing their presence in the area. This evidence supports the idea that at least several polities did not interact with each other the way we might have assumed. This just goes to show how limited our archeological evidence is and the challenges involved in learning more about the history of the region. (Braswell & Prufer, 2009)

With the lack of consistent, concrete evidence pointing to Mayan interconnection we simply feel that the belief is nothing more than a misconception. Many people like to believe that the Mayan were a peaceful, harmonious population all linked together. However, as evidence suggests, little connection existed between several of the major polities. Combined with a high record of warfare between polities, it simply does not seem logical to us to romanticize Mayan history. While this view contrasts with many other popular views, until new archaeological discoveries prove us otherwise, we believe more strongly in the belief that Mayan polities were not as interconnected as people would like to believe.



Braswell, Geoffery and Prufer, Keith. 2009. “Political Organization and Interaction in Southern Belize.” Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology. Vol. 6. Pages 43-54.

Uxbenká and Pusilhá: A Comparison of Two Mayan Polities in Southern Belize

Filed under: Uncategorized — collins @ 8:25 pm

Uxbenká and Pusilhá, two Mayan polities located in Southern Belize, had very similar characteristics true of many Mayan polities in the area. Fertile soil was a common trait of both polities, and contributed their success.  It also explained the many of the similarities in regards to their architecture and structural traits. There were also quite a few differences between the two polities that could be attributed to the fact that the people of Pusilhá migrated from the Petén area of Guatemala.

Both Uxbenká and Pusilhá were located in the foothills of the Maya mountains, and are surrounded by very fertile soil. This area was the most densely populated pre-Columbian region in southern Belize. Though the soil was fertile for differing reasons, both promoted prosperous agriculture and helped both polities thrive. Uxbenká and Pusilhá also shared many structural and architectural traits. At both sites, vaulted architecture is not present, masonry superstructural walls are uncommon, and free-standing pyramids are rare. About half of public architecture was built on modified hills, while the other half were on free-standing platforms. Many of these large structures were integrated into the natural topography, which made them more sturdy and tolerant of the hurricanes and adverse weather conditions in southern Belize due to the movement of the ITCZ and Bermuda High. Additionally, all of the ball courts were enclosed by walls, which may be suggestive of the intensity of the game. One extremely unique trait was that hieroglyphic monuments were common, which differs from most other sites in Belize, aside from Caracol. Furthermore, they operated on the same, but erroneous lunar calendar, which is fascinating because they were both mutually incorrect despite an apparent lack of interaction. In the numerous stelae that were found at both sites, neither explicitly mentions the other. Both sites also contain Tepeu II type ceramics, but there is no documented trade between the two polities, suggesting that the two sites probably traded with the same, or similar, polities in other regions (Braswell & Prufer, 2009).

This map shows the locations of four different Mayan polities in Southern Belize. Uxbenka and Pusilhá are both located near the Guatemalan border, near the Maya Mountains (Braswell & Prufer, 2009)

Though there are many similarities between the two polities of Uxbenká and Pusilhá, there are also very many differences between them. Although some of these differences may seem small, they indicated two very different cities with very different cultures. This difference is likely caused by the fact that the people of Pusilhá were not native to the area, but moved from a different Mayan area in Guatemala. The first major difference between the two cities is the difference in the time when these cities were first inhabited. The earliest estimated of the foundation of Uxbenká was between A.D. 75 and 200, making it the oldest city in ancient Belize. Uxbenká began as a small farming village but eventually grew to be the most powerful polity during its best times. It was also the first polity to switch from a corporate organization focused on the community, to a network system focused on the powerful elites (Prufer et al. 2011). The earliest date researchers have for the foundation of Pusilhá is A.D. 570, which is much later than Uxbenká. Pusilhá was founded by immigrants from the Petén region in Guatemala, contributing to many of the differences between the two sites (Braswell & Prufer, 2009). Though it was founded much later, Pusilhá eventually came to surpass Uxbenká in size. In addition to these differences in the timelines of these two cities, there are also many differences in the two areas where these polities are found. Uxbenká is located in an extremely fertile area of southern Belize that is also close to two trade routes of the time. The soil is primarily composed of silt and clay sized particles from sedimentary rocks. Pusilhá however, is located in the Maya Mountains in less fertile territory, though still relatively fertile in comparison to the area where the people of Pusilhá emigrated. The soil there came mostly from the limestone and volcanic rock in the area, rather than sedimentary rocks. Pusilhá is also more isolated than Uxbenká because of the mountainous location, and likely did not trade with other smaller polities in the region because of this isolation (Braswell & Prufer, 2009). These major differences in the topography and geology of these areas in turn help to contribute to the smaller differences in culture and lifestyle between these two polities.

There are many cultural differences between these two polities. Though not very big, they are just as important to consider as the larger differences in the ages and locations of these two polities. Each of these polities has unique attributes that the other lacks. Pusilhá has two known attributes that make it different from Uxbenká culturally. The first is the use of griddles for making tortillas, called comales, and the use of stone grinders for corn. Pusilhá was the only polity in southern Belize known for making corn tortillas. This was beneficial because it made food portable for workers and farmers in the polity. The grinders used to grind the corn were also unique because of what they were made of. Rather than using local rock, these grinders were often made of volcanic rock from the highland regions of Guatemala (Braswell & Prufer, 2009). This suggested that Pusilhá might have traded with polities in Guatemala or brought these items with them when they migrated from the Petén region in Guatemala. The second attribute were the hieroglyphic stairs found in Pusilhá. No other site in Belize contains stairs like this, making the site at Pusilhá very unique. Uxbenká also has one very different attribute. There is evidence in Uxbenká that a nearby cave, called the Kayuko cave, was used for ritual purposes. All structures were built to face this site, showing its importance to the people of Uxbenká. Structures were also built in and around the cave, including stairs and an altar. Though only used during the Early Classic and part of the Classic Period (use was discontinued after A.D. 600) it was clearly an important part of the culture during this time period (Prufer et al. 2011). These cultural differences clearly suggest that each city had different influences. In fact, records in each city show possible connections to other larger but different polities. Uxbenká shows ties to the powerful polity of Tikal, and there could be possible ties to Copan or Quirigua in Pusilhá. However, very little is understood about these connections (Braswell & Prufer, 2009).

A large part of why these two polities might be so different, even though they are in the same region and relatively close to one another, is because the people of Pusilhá did not originate in the area. There is evidence that the people of Pusilhá migrated from the Petén region of Guatemala. This could possibly explain the grinders made from Guatemalan rocks. Why did the people of Pusilhá come to southern Belize? There are three reasons for their migration. The first is that these people were likely trying to get away from the warfare that plagued the Petén region during the Classic Period. In addition, these people were likely drawn to the more fertile soil and easier access to trade routes in the area of Pusilhá. Compared to the crowded, violent region of Petén, the Maya Mountains in southern Belize is a very nice area to live where a society can flourish in relative comfort, stability and safety. This was extremely enticing for the immigrants from Petén, leading them to settle and found Pusilhá.

Many similarities can be drawn between the two polities, most of which were probably due to the shared climate and locational similarities. The soil in the area contributed greatly to the agricultural success, which is also most likely why they had numerous structural similarities. One of the most interesting similarities is the use of the same, but incorrect lunar calendar, despite the lack of mutual recognition by the two polities. It’s fascinating that two separate polities can be so similar in light of the fact that neither were explicitly in contact. There were also a great number of differences between the two polities that were probably due to the people of Pusilhá being immigrants from the Petén area of Guatemala, giving them a different cultural background than the people of Uxbenká. Though there are a great number of differences, the number of similarities make them interesting sites to compare, especially due to their apparent lack of direct contact.

 This post was authored by:

Kelly Billings an sophomore studying Environmental Studies and Economics. Though she's not exactly what she wants to do with her degree, Kelly is very interested in education about the environment and sustainability. She loves to travel and explore new places and takes pictures wherever she goes.


Boller Photo

Sonia Boller is a rising junior  from Chicago, IL working towards a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies. She is interested in ocean research as well as photography, and would love to shoot for a company like National Geographic sometime post graduation.



Works Cited

Braswell, Geoffrey E and Keith M. Prufer. 2009. “Politcal Organization and Interaction in  Belize.” Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology. Vol 6. Pp 43-54.

Prufer, Keith M; Moyes, Holley; Culleton, Brendan J; Kindon, Andrew; Kennet, Douglas J. 2011. “Formation of a Complex Polity On the Eastern Periphery of the Maya Lowlands.” Latin Anerican Antiguity. Vol 22. No. 2. Pp 199-223.




The Priorities of Environmentalism in Belize

In the past few days in rural Southern Belize we have seen forests full of biodiversity, extensive pastures grazed by cattle and horses, and people truly connected to their land.  In rural villages, homes are built from the wood and palm leaves of the surrounding forest, food is homegrown and homebred, and families maintain the integrity and beauty of their homes and their land not only as a necessity, but also as a way of life and culture.

It is clear that land is a treasure to the people of Belize.  In fall of 2001,

Conservancy in Belize entered into an agreement with the United States Government and the Government of Belize that provided a net total of $11.6 million dollars to NGOs and Belize-based scientific organizations committed to the conservation of tropical rainforests (Egolf, 2001).  This agreement, enacted under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998, incentivized the Belizean government to direct a greater focus to funding conservation efforts.  This “debt-for-nature swap,” cut over half of the $9.7 million dollars Belize was indebted to the United States, providing a system where The Nature Conservancy subsidized Belizean debt and reorganized cash, interest, and land holdings with the help of both countries’ governments and NGOs.  This historic and important event in Belize marks the first time that an NGO has played as the driving force of a sovereign-to-sovereign debt swap, and with the power of $1.3 million donated to the fund from The Nature Conservancy, they were able to leverage $11.6 million dollars exclusively to protect lands that were under threat of slash and burn farming, development, and logging.

Programs like this provide incentives for development not only in the environment, but socially and politically as well.  In order to be eligible for debt-reductions through the TRCA, nations must not support terrorism, support narcotics control, have intellectual property laws, provide some kind of democratic participation for leadership election, and have no current serious human rights violations.

During the first few days of our trip we had the pleasure of visiting Santa Cruz R.C. School, a public school of about 100 students in a small Maya community.  While driving through the town to reach the school, we saw traditional homes with thatched palm roofs, horses and chickens in every yard, and children walking to school.  We volunteered for two days in various grade levels at the school, and to our surprise, the curriculum largely focused on the environment and the importance of science. By taking a glance around the classroom it was obvious environmental studies was a part of the curriculum on a daily basis with posters of barrier reefs, endangered animals, and the Earth’s layers.  It’s important to note that this school curriculum reinforces what most of these kids already know from life experience, as they work the land everyday with their parents while farming their land.  In our own classroom, we taught the children about the importance of energy, the cyclical nature of water, and the interconnection of the Earth’s resources and the environment.  We sang songs about how water travels in streams and rivers and oceans, and how essential forests are to our entire planet.  Students divided tasks to clean the school and maintain the trash and upkeep of the surrounding area, and to our great satisfaction, signs were placed around the area urging students and guests to maintain the cleanliness of the environment around them.

The culture in which these kids grow up places the protection of the environment as a priority in their fundamental education. This is not just seen at Santa Cruz R.C. School, but also at Tumul K’in Center for Learning, the other school we visited, where the head instructor said the two most important aspects of his innovative school were the preservation of the Mayan culture and the preservation of the environment. Mayan culture is tied to the environment where respect for the environment is part of the overall well being of human life.

Exposing students at this early age allows them to become familiar with their environment so that can better appreciate and respect the importance of their surroundings in relation to the overall wellbeing as a Mayan community. This culture of environmental awareness allows for programs like the TFCA to be an effective priority throughout the country. Having traveled to a few developing countries and visited schools in places such as Ghana and Panama, we have seen similar schools where priorities such as environmental health are not reinforced.  In these schools, children would throw their trash on the ground, waiting for the wind to blow it away, lost and forgotten.  It is essential for the education system to create and maintain a culture that cares for its environment.

It is also essential that education create new leadership within the country that can carry on this care for the environment, especially as the world moves towards greater resource depletion and degrading environmental conditions.  While the U.S. government may support the conservation of tropical forests, these same reserves are currently under threat from exploration for oil.  Even as legislation and regulatory systems are created to prevent such exploitation, the government must be able to maintain its autonomy and strength against such threats.  By sustaining an environment so intertwined with livelihood and culture, the country of Belize can persist against the increasing pressures to exploit the treasures that it holds.

A sign at the entrance of Santa Cruz R.C. School. The school also had several sites specifically maintained to dump waste and treat it properly. Photo credit: Justin Bogda

This post was authored by Justin Bogda and Stephanie Mercado.


Egolf, Suzanna. (2001). The Belize Debt-for-Nature Swap. Mobilizing Funding for Biodiversity Conservation: A User Friendly Training Guide.



Caribbean Collapses

Filed under: research — collins @ 8:16 pm

The Maya civilization is available to us through the great lens of historical studies. Archaeological evidence provides us with a picture of what the civilization was like and what brought about its collapse. However, these observations although tremendously insightful in understanding the civilization and its collapse, occur millennia after. We may wonder what it would be like to be an outside observer present during the centuries that constitute the Maya collapse. There just might be a more current case occurring that offers parallels and a window to the Mayan collapse. Many of the factors that brought about the discontinuation of the Maya in the 9th and 10th centuries AD are mirrored in the decline of social order in Haiti, an ongoing and substantially troubling situation.

Mayan civilization declined continuously over the course of several centuries after it had reached its peak during the Classic period (approximately AD 250 – 1000), and numerous factors contributed to this decline. If we are to understand collapse as a drastic reduction in the population of a civilization that is paralleled by prolonged periods of social and political disorganization, then some of the primary factors to consider include environmental damage, climate change, and –most importantly– society’s response to its political, economical, and environmental issues (Diamond 2005). The deforestation and depletion of soil fertility of Mayan agricultural lands is evidenced by the research done on the proxies for rainfall and soil erosion, such as observing the sediment layers in lake sediment cores (Webster et al. 2007). These measurements show that the poor conditions for agricultural productivity had already placed the Maya people at a disadvantage, and the compounding effects of the three major droughts in AD 810, 860, and 910 proved too much for the Maya people and their elites to combat and recover from (Gill 2000). The leaders of Mayan polities controlled the collective responses to change within the urban centers, and instead of conserving resources and preserving the environment, the elites chose to focus on aggrandizing their personal statuses, resulting in over-urbanization which had pushed many farmers out of their rural homes into urban society (Prufer et al. 2011). The major Mayan polity in southern Belize whose collapse was one of the most significant, Uxbenká, perfectly exemplifies this, evolving from a small village to a political Mayan center over a short period of time and limited space. This failure of the elites to manage the space and society is thought to be a major contributing factor to the fall of the Maya, and is very similar to what has been seen in many collapsing cultures, such as modern-day Haiti.

Haiti has undergone and experienced these same problems that are understood to be the central issues which brought about the Mayan collapse. It is somewhat difficult to evaluate given the fact that Haiti still exists as a country–albeit one that is a truly disunited set of communities that are plagued by poverty, disease, and corruption. How do we establish that Haiti is on the brink of collapse? Occupying the same landmass (Hispaniola) in the Caribbean as Haiti, the Dominican Republic serves as a good comparison in environmental and economic terms to extract the true data of Haiti’s condition. The two share a similar climate, although the Dominican Republic enjoys more precipitation on average due to being on the eastern side of the island (Diamond 2005). The Dominican Republic also has richer soils, more level ground, and rivers that flow into the interior making it much more ideal for plant growth. Haiti has a substantially less productive environment and yet is paradoxical that it was able to develop a thriving agricultural economy long before the Dominicans. This development did not come without its costs however as the rapid agricultural expansion came with heavy destruction to Haitian forests, soils, and waterways  (Diamond 2005).

The extent of environmental degradation in Haiti is far greater than in the Dominican Republic and it has become even more apparent in the past century. Years of industrial and economic development that culminated in substantial environmental degradation under the dictator president Trujillo in early 20th century Dominican Republic were counteracted closely by many more following years of remedial policies by Balaguer. In Haiti not only was there no push for industrial and technological development, but also there were no attempts made to remediate the centuries of compounded environmental problems (Diamond 2005). For example in the Dominican Republic, during the mid 20th century a campaign was established for importing and utilizing propane and natural gas to conserve forest resources that was originally used for fuel while the impoverished Haiti’s dependency on forest-charcoal persisted and deforestation proceeded to demolish what was left of the forests. Figure 1 depicts the stark contrast between the landscapes of Haiti and Dominican Republic in plain visual detail. Nearly sixty percent of commercial and residential energy demands for ten million people in Haiti are still met by extracting and burning charcoal (Gronewold 2009). Perhaps most destructive of all factors is that Haiti has a smaller landmass than Dominican Republic, but carries a larger population consisting mainly of former black slaves. This higher population density puts greater strain upon the already diminished resources.