Civilizations: Ancient and Modern

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Twenty-nine years ago, while in Guatemala for Spanish language training, we had the opportunity to hitchhike to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. The feeling of awe that enveloped us on first glimpsing the splendour of the towering pyramids has remained with us all these years. Supposing that no other Mayan ruins could come anywhere close to matching the majestic grandeur of Tikal, we were at first somewhat reluctant to visit the Copán Ruins in Honduras. We're so glad that we changed our minds!

For six hours we meandered throughout the 24 sq km area, stopping occasionally to read the background information, but primarily just quietly admiring the magnificent architecture - especially the intricate carvings on the stelae and altars for which the Copán site is best known. Having been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1980, the ruins (the remains of 3,450 structures) are set amidst well maintained lawns and surrounded by the dense forest of the Copán Valley.

We climbed the steps of several of the temples to admire the view from the top, and imagined ourselves being King Smoke Imix or King18 Rabbit - the 12th and 13th rulers of this magnificent kingdom; we admired Copán's most famous monument - the 63 step Hieroglyphic Stairway, which is now protected from erosion by an unfortunately rather unattractive tarp; we noted traces of red paint on some of the exceptionally carved stelae in the Great Plaza, apparently indicating that the originals were probably all painted; and we thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the Mayan history in a very tranquil and relaxed atmosphere.

As with most ancient ruins, archeologists are still working to discover the real story behind this incredible settlement. However, it is known that more than 20,000 people lived here at the peak of the Mayan civilization during the 7th and 8th centuries. So how is it that such a talented and rich civilization simply disappeared? According to the experts, the population expanded so rapidly that they were unable to sustain themselves. The farmers spread out further across the valley, slashing, burning, and deforesting as they went, but the overused land soon became infertile. Without sufficient food, the inhabitants became malnourished and had little resistance to disease, and the population gradually declined for several centuries. By the year 1200 the dense jungle had totally reclaimed the entire city of Copán.

Fast forward to 2007. Gone is the incredible Mayan dynasty of kings and subjects. Gone are the talented sculptors and temple builders. All that remain are the incredible ruins that tell a story steeped in history. But Honduras, like the rest of our world, is now part of a new global economy and inter-related civilization. The economy of Honduras has long been influenced and controlled from the US - mainly through companies such as Standard Fruit and United Fruit - don't forget this is the quintessential 'Banana Republic'. However, in recent years the economy has become increasingly dependent on another source of dollars - the US$ 2-3 billion in remittances sent home by emigrants to the US every year. Most of these emigrants are working illegally in the States - and are currently being deported at a rate of some 75 a day - but the line-ups at Western Union and Moneygram attest to the importance of this modern-day facet of the Honduran economy.

Driving through the city of San Pedro Sula, we might as well have been in Texas - the "strip" was lined on both sides with huge signs for Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonald's, Chevrolet, Esso, and every other imaginable North American chain. We wondered whether these would be the monuments of our civilization to be unearthed by archaeologists of the future - maybe from another galaxy?  What would they make of our consumer society temples, fast food complexes and car showrooms? Would they be able to decipher the hieroglyphics telling them of the demise of a civilization that was hellbent on destroying their planet due to mindless materialistic greed? To us it may seem unimaginable that the Mayan civilization collapsed due to insufficient food production - after all, they had endless miles of fertile valleys to exploit. But what about our civilization - where will we go when our soils, forests, lakes, oceans and atmosphere have all been totally polluted or depleted? No doubt many of you have seen Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth". If you want to explore a little more about the rise and fall of civilizations over the ages, and the lessons that we need to learn from history, you might want to pick up a copy of a slim volume called "A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright. Interesting food for thought!
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