THE JUNGLE IS SO THICK THAT ARTHUR Demarest and the archeological inspector assigned to him don't see the army platoon until the comandante is in their path, demanding identification. Demarest has plenty: documents from Guatemala's History and Anthropology Institute, a gold-sealed letter from National Geographic and even a notarized Spanish translation of his Harvard diploma. The comandante , whose squadron of full-blooded Mayan Indians appears ominously battle-scarred, offers to lead them to the cave they're seeking--not exactly the safest proposition in this guerrilla-infested rain forest, but unavoidable under the circumstances.
For three hours they follow their machete-wielding guides through the amber-green filtered light of the mahogany canopy, their eyes probing the leafy ground cover for venomous serpents while scarlet macaws screech overhead. Finally they arrive at a large hole in the moist soil, leading into a limestone cave. As they descend, their lamps reveal a stretch of stalactites, an altar black with burned incense, human bones painted red, ceramic pottery, lithic spear points and a cascading stream. There is a noise, and something shoots past them; a large tropical rodent called a tepezquintle , a local delicacy. Immediately, soldiers aim their automatic M-16s, and everyone screams. The inspector drops his camera, breaking it, and Demarest pleads with the comandante to stop the firing; pots will be trampled, ricocheting bullets will kill them all, the cave will collapse--and with it his hopes of answering the question he is spending more than $1 million to answer. Eventually, the rodent disappears, the soldiers hold their fire, and the archeologist, the inspector and the artifacts escape unscathed.
IT IS ONE OF HISTORY'S GREAT MYSTERIES.
No one knows for certain where they came from. As for when they arrived in Central America, less is presumed now than 20 years ago, because the dating of early relics at 2500 BC hinged on faulty carbon-14 data. Assumptions abruptly dissolved, leaving the truth buried beneath more than two millennia's worth of jungle and alluvium. It is generally agreed, however, that by 900 BC a sophisticated culture called Maya had spread across the great lowland limestone shelf that today comprises Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Belize and the northern half of Guatemala.
It was an elaborate society that must have seemed to its people destined to thrive forever. Sixteen-hundred years later, at least 6 million Maya lived in what in some ways resembled Southern California: a flourishing megalopolis of city-states, with few breaks among their overlapping suburbs. Their monumental architecture, as well as their painting, astronomy, mathematics and literature, humbled the achievements of their contemporaries in Europe. Equally striking and far less understood is how so many could inhabit a tropical rain forest. For centuries, they raised their food and families in the same fragile environment that today is quickly devastated by a relatively few hungry squatters.
What has baffled archeologists even more, however, is the Maya's spectacular, sudden collapse. Within just 100 years at the beginning of the 8th Century, lowland Mayan civilization simply vanished. In most of the Yucatan, only scattered remnants of the population remained; the Peten province that encompasses northern Guatemala was left virtually uninhabited. Rain-forest vegetation soon overran the ball courts and plazas, enshrouding tall pyramids. Except for an occasional vagrant Spanish conquistador, not until the 19th Century would the world again be aware of the Maya's existence.
Speculation over what happened to the Maya has included possibilities such as famine, epidemics, overpopulation and soil erosion--yet for each explanation, arguments exist against its causing extinction on such a massive scale. Although most Mayan cities were notably indefensible, no relics indicate a significant invasion of alien forces. Often extolled as history's exemplary peaceful society, the Maya seemed least likely to consume themselves in internal warfare. Yet Demarest's recent discoveries in the steamy Peten suggest that is exactly what happened.
Under the co-sponsorship of Vanderbilt University and the Instituto de Antropologia y Historia de Guatemala, one of the most ambitious archeological ventures ever assembled has begun a quest for the answer to the Mayan collapse. Demarest, its brash 37-year-old director, is a Louisiana Cajun who won an international reputation while still a graduate student. Five years ago, he declined a Harvard chair considered to be the most distinguished position in archeology because Vanderbilt offered him a chance to set up his own Mesoamerican department and select a dream project. After barely a year, accounts from Guatemala's Peten jungles of his team's findings have evoked comparisons to Indiana Jones--analogies that even he occasionally lets slip when confronting yet another pristine cavern laden with ancient Mayan ceramics.
Yet there the resemblance ends. Instead of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the movie that most often comes to Demarest's mind is "The Year of Living Dangerously." In Guatemala, guerrillas and the army stalk each other within a few kilometers of his excavations, catching in their cross-fire people who still speak languages derived from those used for the hieroglyphics his team is decoding.
"Indiana Jones," he says wearily, "swashbuckled through a mythical, generic, non-English-speaking Third World of swarthy people with threatening, incomprehensible ways, defeating them with American heroics and seizing their treasures. But archeology isn't about glittery objects--it's about their context. We're part of the context. It's our workers whose fields are burning; it's their children with malaria. We come to study ancient civilization, but we end up learning about now."
It is late; the generator in his field camp is off, and he works at his desk through the humid night by Coleman lantern, his fingers worrying his thick black hair. In the distance, bursts of artillery pierce the steady rumbling of howler monkeys. "Indiana Jones would have lasted maybe five seconds here," he says. "About the least successful approach to Latin America is pulling a John Wayne."
Demarest has come to the Peten to prove his theory that, over 2,000 years, the Maya evolved a means of resolving conflicts among nations without destroying each others' societies--but then something went wrong. With an international team that includes earth scientists and an assortment of archeological specialists, he intends to spend the next five years finding out exactly what.
Besides receiving grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities and Alimentos Kerns, a Guatemalan corporation, his project has also attracted funding from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Peace Foundation and the United States Institute for Peace. In an endless stream of grant proposals, Demarest has pointed out that grasping what happened to the Maya may reveal why all civilizations seem to rise only to bring themselves down--and perhaps offer clues about how, for once, that might be avoided.
FORTY MINUTES NORTHEAST OF THE ISLAND city of Flores on Guatemala's Lake Peten Itxa, a paved road arrives at the fabulous ruins of Tikal, the largest classic Mayan site, its white temples soaring 230 feet above the jungle floor. In the opposite direction, another road from Flores, decidedly unpaved, leads southwest for three miserable hours. Passing through various army checkpoints and an occasional guerrilla roadblock, it ends at the scruffy outpost of Sayaxche, where a machine-gun emplacement perches atop a Mayan pyramid and where no one is up to any particular good.
Sayaxche is on the Rio Pasion--the Passion River--which slithers through the western Peten to the confluence of the rivers Usamacinta and Salinas, together forming Guatemala's border with Mexico. Once the Pasion was a chief route for trade in jade, fine pottery, quetzal feathers and jaguar skins. Today's traffic includes contraband mahogany and cedar logs, opium from Guatemalan highland poppies and looted Mayan artifacts. Down one of its sluggish tributaries, motor-driven wooden launches also have recently carried quantities of two modest items that in the Peten are veritable luxuries: corrugated tin roofing and cases of Spam.
The roofing was for the base camp that Demarest built in a jungle clearing for the 23 archeologists and more than 100 workmen he had hired by the end of the digging season, which lasts from January to June. The Spam was the most recognizable component of their daily sustenance. In just five years, the Mesoamerican program Demarest founded at Vanderbilt has attracted brilliant archeologists and graduate students capable of translating 1,500-year-old hieroglyphics, but none ever conclusively identified the alien green broth that regularly passed for breakfast.
Spam, tin, tools, lab equipment, field library, portable generator, mystery meals and some non-inventoried bottles of Scotch had been transported from the river on bony mules and horses, their bodies sucked nearly hollow by vampire bats. The hike takes three sweltering hours during the relatively dry season. When the June torrents commence, it becomes a boot-swallowing wade that requires at least twice that long. The dig season supposedly ends with the rains, but this year the rains came a month early.
After long, mosquito-rich stretches of strangler vines and palmilla thickets, the path climbs a steep escarpment. Giant mahoganies, cedars, ceibas, chicle-bearing sapodillas and breadnut trees rise 200 feet from the thin tropical soils capping the limestone. Along the escarpment's ragged edge, the Maya built cities that Demarest's team has determined once formed an interlocking kingdom called the Petexbatun. Only a few years ago, the cities' relationship would have been impossible to divine. Breakthroughs in deciphering the language carved onto fragments of history that push up through the forest floor have changed everything. The area contains no less than seven major cities and 230 monuments, and Demarest intends to open them all.
An hour away from the base camp, small mahogany-covered hills emerge on a rise between streams cutting through the escarpment. These are actually pyramids, built from chunks of local limestone hewn with chert adzes, now being reclaimed by the soil. This site, Arroyo de Piedra, is being excavated by a slim, mild 25-year-old graduate student named David Stuart. The son of National Geographic archeologist George Stuart, he spent hours as a child first staring at, then drawing Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics. At 12 he delivered his first professional paper, titled "Observations on the T565 Glyph at Palenque." At 18, he became the youngest recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, for having revolutionized Mayan epigraphic interpretation.
Demarest has Stuart digging garbage pits. "He's already an epigrapher. Now he'll be a field archeologist, too," Demarest says. Over dinner, Stuart and Steve Houston, another world-class glyph wizard Demarest lured to Vanderbilt's faculty, fill napkins with symbols. Fifteen years ago, epigraphers realized that Mayan glyphs could be phonetic as well as pictorial. Stuart made major advances in figuring out how the phonetic symbols connected; he and Houston now crack a new connection every few weeks. Their ability to read inscriptions on the stelae--stone monoliths that stand in Mayan ceremonial plazas--is responsible for Demarest's conclusion that, about AD 700, one of the Petexbatun city-states began to break the rules of restrained conflict.
At Arroyo de Piedra, Stuart reads the dot-and-bar code that is the date on a huge, fallen stela; it corresponds to AD 715. The image is of a local chieftain, identified as the son of a vassal to a great lord from another city--evidence that Arroyo de Piedra had fallen under someone else's dominion. The lord, whose actual name is yet undeciphered, is known as Ruler 2 of Dos Pilas.
Dos Pilas is where Demarest has spent $100,000 building one of the biggest archeological camps ever. The quadrangle of labs, mess hall, storeroom and cabins sits just off a plaza shaded by an overgrown knoll. The crumbling limestone blocks around its slopes were once a 100-foot-wide staircase; buried somewhere inside the thickly forested knoll is Dos Pilas' principal palace. The surrounding jungle, filled with chattering toucans and green parrots, is so dense that after Dos Pilas was discovered in the 1950s, 17 years passed before anyone noticed that a nearby hill was actually a 220-foot pyramid.
Across the grassy plaza, cleared by workmen who play soccer here in the afternoons, is a smaller mound. A mossy stela found in front of it shows a warrior in a huge headdress, holding a shield and standing on the back of a bound human captive. The warrior is Ruler 2 himself; Stuart and Houston have concluded that he is probably buried under the mound. With his National Geographic benefactors expecting a prime-time TV documentary, Demarest realizes that this is the point in his career when he must defer his fascination for ancient trash pits and open a royal tomb. When he stumbles back into camp after five days of hacking through the ubiquitous red tape in Guatemala City, he checks with workers tunneling into the face of the mound: So far, nothing, they tell him.
There is other news: Julio Ruana is lost again. "Is the dog with him?" Demarest asks. It is--a relief--but so is the team of cave specialists who just arrived from the United States to see the dog's latest momentous discovery. They were due back hours ago.
Ruana lives in Nacimiento, a nearby squatters' village. The settlers are Mayan-Kekchi-speaking refugees from the highlands who fled counterinsurgency attacks. The doctor whom Demarest brought down, ostensibly as insurance against pit vipers, is mainly here to treat Nacimiento's malaria, tuberculosis and other woes. The workmen's salaries, at $5 a day high by Guatemalan standards, help alleviate malnutrition.
Lately, Ruana is getting paid for getting lost. In two weeks, he has found seven caves, usually when his skinny white mongrel, Rapido, chases a tepezquintle into holes wide enough for Ruana to squeeze into. That night, when the muddy cave team struggles back in, the specialists are awe-struck. Ruana never located the cave he originally wanted them to see, but Rapido turned up yet another. This one extends for at least two kilometers and is paved with hundreds of pots: some four feet high, some covered with ornate polychrome, some incised, some with stalagmites growing out of them.
Caves were believed to be passages to the underworld where earth deities dwelt and where rain was formed. Against the din of an immense downpour clanging on the tin roof, archeologist Jim Brady keeps repeating that he's just entered a place where no human being had been for a thousand years, filled with ceramics, jade, flint and human remains. "One of the greatest Mayan caves," he marvels, wiping clay from his goatee. Over the next few weeks, Ruana finds more new grottoes, including one where he thinks he saw wall paintings, rare among the Maya, except he lost his flashlight while fleeing a jaguar prowling inside.
Brady, already overwhelmed with the ceramic-filled cornucopia they've dubbed Cueva de Sangre, doesn't even want to know any more. Cueva de Sangre also contains a lake holding skeletons that might have been sacrifices, a speculation strengthened by a nearby cache of carved stingray spines. These implements were used in ritual bloodletting, specifically to lacerate the penis--a practice with variations, including circumcision, that appear in many parts of the world. The Maya believed that the soul resides in the blood; propitiating God with the gift of life was considered necessary to keep the calendar turning.
In Mayan iconography, rulers are depicted with their hands under their loincloths, scattering droplets. It was Stuart who, at age 15, spotted the link that suggested that the droplets were not corn, water or semen but their own blood--and, symbolically, that of their forebears. Sometimes the queens joined in the mutilation, pulling a rope through a perforation in their tongues. The blood was collected on bark paper, which was then burned to release its spirit. With the aid of mushrooms and hallucinogenic enemas, royalty would gaze into the smoke and confer with their ancestors.
"Often," Demarest notes, "their ancestors would tell them to go to war." Their wars, frequently adhering to astrological cycles, at first impression seem singularly grisly. A member of an opposing royal family would be captured, ritually bled, and sometimes kept captive and paraded in humiliation for years. Eventually, his heart would be ripped out, or he would be decapitated or tortured to death. At Dos Pilas, one victim was tightly rolled and bound and then used for a game on the ceremonial ball court until his back was broken.
"And yet," Demarest argues, "there was relatively no societal trauma, no destruction of fields and buildings or territories taken. It was a way of maintaining peace through constant, low-grade warfare that released tensions between leaders without endangering the landscape."
The system functioned for centuries throughout the lowlands, until it began to break down, first at Dos Pilas. Thus far, Demarest's team knows this: By the mid-7th Century, Tikal had entered a profound stagnation. Nearly 50,000 people were living there, yet no new monuments had been erected for decades. But 65 miles away, at Dos Pilas, a new kingdom had adopted Tikal's emblem glyph--a top-knot of hair--thus laying claim to its heritage. Two wars with Tikal followed. After the second led to a great triumph, both were commemorated on an elaborate Dos Pilas staircase, its steps richly carved with hieroglyphics.
The victory was a proper ritual war involving no loss of territory. The son of the defeated Tikal king ascended to the throne, and Tikal entered a renaissance. The Dos Pilas monarch, Ruler 1, also had a son who took over in AD 690. Under Ruler 2, the influence of Dos Pilas expanded through marriage. His sister became the queen of the distant city-state Naranjo and another woman--probably his daughter--became ensconced at Tamarindito. Stelae began appearing in which the artistic flair of local sculptors was replaced by stiff, military realism. And one of the stelae now identified Ruler 2 of Dos Pilas as the overlord of Tamarindito.
With the advent of Ruler 3, it was apparent that Dos Pilas had become an aggressive power. Ruler 3 usurped the important center of Seibal--a stela in Dos Pilas shows him resplendent in jaguar-skin boots, with the forlorn, naked king of Seibal helpless under his feet. An exact duplicate was also erected at Aguateca, a fortresslike site on a bluff high above Lake Petexbatun, reached by a natural bridge over a deep chasm. Stretching even farther, Ruler 3 brought back a second wife from Cancuen. The Lady of Cancuen was eventually buried in a magnificent tomb, recently opened at Dos Pilas, where she was found with a mouthful of jade.
Ruler 4 was the greatest imperialist of all, conquering the entire Petexbatun and beyond. He stretched his domain to more than three times the normal size of a classic Mayan kingdom. Then, with his unexpected death in AD 760 at the hands of rebels from Tamarindito, the empire suddenly imploded.
Rulers 5 and 6 apparently spent their reigns cowering in the isolated safety of Aguateca. Seibal was taken over by invaders, whose fine orange pottery indicates that they were from somewhere in Mexico. Under their dominion, Seibal flourished when everything else had collapsed. Then it, too, was abandoned.
A remarkable archeological find bears witness to the grim ending of Dos Pilas itself. After Ruler 4's defeat, the people, who lived in wide, concentric rings around the city, erected a village in the middle of the ceremonial plaza. The wall they threw up around their compound was made from decorative facing materials ripped from Ruler 2's tomb and from the principal palace. It was the equivalent of tearing down the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to fortify a tent city on the Capitol Mall.
This defensive barrier, first mapped by Steve Houston in 1986 while working on his doctoral dissertation, clinched Demarest's decision to launch his exhaustive study at Dos Pilas. The citizens of Dos Pilas, either beyond revering or thoroughly outraged by the memory of their greedy former rulers, buried the magnificent carved hieroglyphic triumphal staircase so deeply that no one knew it existed until almost 2,000 years later, when Vanderbilt graduate student Stacey Symonds uncovered it this past season while looking for a gate in the wall.
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN? DID THE MOUNTING populations gradually exhaust the land, tempting the Petexbatun rulers to seize their neighbors' property--a move leading to a cycle of response that spiraled into total war?
Or did increasing belligerence between cities cause each to abandon vulnerable outlying fields and intensify production closer to home, eventually pushing land beyond its tolerance?
In the screened field laboratory at Dos Pilas, archeologists wearing faded T-shirts from previous digs ("Proyecto Arqueologico el Mesak: Keeping the Dead Alive") ponder exponentially expanding piles of clues. Two young Guatemalan graduate students, Claudia Wooley and Barbara Arroyo, become dazed poring over hundreds of drawings.
Antonia Foias, whose family escaped from Romania 11 years ago, peers at bits of cross-hatched polychrome. She never dreamed she'd one day be in the jungles of Guatemala, drenched with insect repellent, with more than 1 million pottery sherds heaped between her and her doctorate. Over the next five years she will work with Ron Bishop, a ceramics specialist Demarest recruited from the Smithsonian, identifying trade patterns to verify how much of the imperial history recorded on the stelae is accurate and how much is propaganda.
Nearby, Lori Wright and Hector Escobedo argue over whether the human bone crumbs he is finding atop a large pyramid indicate sacrifice or cremation. Wright's specialty is archeo-osteology, examining bones for telltale scars left by specific diseases or for genetic markers that may indicate whether residents of different sites were biologically related. She will especially seek evidence about nutrition, since changes in diet preceding the collapse would signify a break in the pattern of food production.
To know whether war ruined the environment or gradual environmental decline led to war, archeologists must first settle an issue that plagues the entire planet these days: How could anyone grow food in a tropical rain forest without destroying it?
Nick Dunning did his doctoral work in the Yucatan, examining the romantic image of Mayan super-managers cultivating an enormous tropical breadbasket. During the next several years, Dunning will place thousands of pinches of dirt on filter paper, add reagents and, within minutes, determine the dirt's relative quantity of phosphates. The simple test reveals soil use: organic refuse such as garbage, human feces or mulch mineralizes quickly, leaving identifiable phosphate fingerprints of hidden dwellings, kitchen gardens and ancient fields.
Dunning will drive tubes into lake bottoms to extract core samples layered with centuries of pollen that drained from the forest and from whatever crops that were cultivated. He will train computers to analyze satellite maps of vegetative cover, conduct oblique-angle photographic aerial surveys and walk transect lines from site to site, sampling along horizontal ribs at least every 100 meters, to find every field he can.
"We will know what happened in the Petexbatun. It may not be the same throughout the lowlands," he adds, which reflects the intelligent diversity of Mayan methods he has already observed. On hillsides, the Maya built walls to trap rich humus from runoff water in cultivation terraces. Along lakes and riverbeds, they dug ditches to drain swamps, heaping the soil they removed to create fertile raised fields.
Mostly, though, they mimicked the rain forest, providing layers of shade for diverse crops. Rows of corn and beans would shade a ground cover of melons and squash; fruit trees, in turn, sheltered them, and protective patches of the forest itself would be left among fields periodically burned for cultivation.
"Partly, it was a happy accident. Without chain saws, they had to leave the biggest trees," Dunning says. That is exactly what hasn't happened at doleful Nacimiento. A logging road growing at 30 kilometers per year has reached the area; streams of flatbed trailers are carrying away cedar and mahogany and knocking everything else down in their way. Dunning and Demarest have explained all this to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Their paleo-ecological sleuthing will henceforth also be funded by USAID, with something extra to add both more work and satisfaction: a program to teach displaced highland Indians the local techniques of their lowland cousins and forebears.
ARTHUR DEMAREST STANDS IN THE main plaza of Aguateca, the fortified capital of Dos Pilas' late rulers, accompanied by students Stacey Symonds and Takeshi Inomata. Symonds shows him a garbage midden filled with corn-grinding metates and domestic pottery sherds. Demarest frowns; there shouldn't be a trash pit in this spot. Before them is a huge, U-shaped structure with a steep staircase leading to the throne where Ruler 4 once sat, fierce in his jaguar skins, and received the panting, terrified subjects who had climbed the stairs to bow before him. Dunning hasn't ruled out that environmental strains due to population pressure might have triggered the Dos Pilas dynasty's hostile land grabs, but Demarest is more convinced than ever that it was the other way around.
"The problem wasn't too many people," Demarest says. "But society had evolved too many elites."
He describes a culture wobbling under the weight of an excess of nobles, all requiring quetzal feathers, jade, obsidian, fine chert, fancy corbeled roofs and animal furs. In the Petexbatun kingdom, aristocracy was swollen further by polygamy: "Too many heirs wanted thrones, or needed some ritual bloodletting to confirm their stature. Inevitably, dynastic warfare heightened.
"Any society that depends on growth economics, with elites demanding ever-greater levels of material well-being, eventually reaches its limits," he says. As more temples need building, a higher caloric demand on workers requires more food production. Population rises to ensure enough food producers. Constant warfare--as demonstrated in Aztec, Inca and Chinese empires--also increases population, because rulers require soldiers.
As stakes rise, trade is disrupted and settlement patterns change. Population begins to concentrate, something potentially lethal in a rain forest. Investment in long-term crops dwindles. Refugees now living behind defensive walls farm only adjacent areas, inviting ecological disaster. Their confidence in leaders declines with their quality of life. They lose faith. Ritual activity ceases.
It is a hypothesis that must be tested rigorously. But at nearby Lake Petexbatun, the team has stumbled onto a portent of what Demarest expects to find over the coming years.
On a peninsula called Punta de Chimino, a Mayan ruin that Inomata was mapping turned out to be a compact fortress city. The peninsula had been severed from the mainland by three moats, one cutting so deeply into bedrock that digging it required three times the energy used to build the city itself--"the equivalent," Demarest observes, "of spending 75% of a nation's budget on defense." This was a society out of control. The spear points imbedded in the fortress walls testify to the fate of whoever ended up in Punta de Chimino. "When you examine societies just as self-confident as ours, which unraveled and were eventually swallowed by the jungle," says Arthur Demarest, "you see that we can blow it, too. The balance between ecology and society is exquisitely delicate. If something throws that delicate balance off, it all can end."
He stoops and picks a sherd from the moist ground. "Two thousand years later," he adds, "people will be squinting over the fragments, trying to find out what went wrong."