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From Corn to Coin

Lessons from the mighty Maya


One theory about the collapse of the Mayan civilization in Mexico some 1,100 years ago is based on evidence that they had perfected a bureaucracy of corn. Exhaustive rules governed how corn was grown, distributed and consumed. A hierarchy defined every social position and allotment of corn, and this arrangement lasted 650 years.

But when drought and declining soil fertility reduced the corn supply, established procedures no longer worked. One city after another fell until nothing was left but jungle-covered pyramids and toppled stone calendars. On the hillsides above the ruins, small villages grew tiny amounts of corn that allowed lives that were hungry and short. It's not hard to imagine that the Bush administration's scramble to solve the current financial crisis has precedent in the throne rooms of Mayan city-states. I can hear it now ...

"We need more corn," financial ministers said to cacao-addled Mayan kings. "Unemployed tortilla-makers are rioting in the ballcourts. The people on the bottom aren't getting any corn at all."

"No problem," the kings said. "We'll borrow corn from our Mayan brothers in the other city-states. Look at Chichen Itza. They've got corn. We've sent them tons of corn to pay for the jade jaguar statues and giant stone calendars that their slaves make."

"No, Chichen Itza won't lend us any more corn until we pay back the corn they've already lent us. Besides, they've got so many slaves that they're eating the huge corn surplus they've built up."

"Then our slaves must work harder," the kings said. "That will bring efficiency into our agricultural economy."

"We tried that," the ministers said. "They keep dying."

"Then we will form an alliance with Tikal and Palenque and march on Chichen Itza and take their hoarded corn away before their slaves eat it all."

"That could work," the ministers said. "We'll equip all our unemployed tortilla-makers with spears, and attack those greedy Chichen-Itzans and get our corn back."

The Maya must have all had the same idea at the same time, because continuous wars between city-states put impossible demands on an already struggling corn economy. The slaves who grew the corn refused to give it up to tax collectors. Those slaves were killed, and armies trampled the cornfields. The Mayan population crashed. Human sacrifice may have gone from ritual to protein source. Bad things happened to those kings whose unemployed tortilla-makers were defeated by another king's unemployed tortilla-makers.

Through all of the collapse, kings were still kings. High priests still prayed to jaguar gods. Bureaucrats still begat bureaucrats. Deep patterns of cultural behavior persisted until death and beyond.

Centuries later, you could argue that America has followed a similar path. We have perfected a bureaucracy of money, and the financial structures that have resulted will persist long after the money's gone. There will be a Federal Reserve even when there is no reserve, and not much federal. More and more unemployed will be sent to fight. The people on the bottom of the hierarchy will be squeezed so normal life can go on for those at the top.

Through it all, there will be a relentless reduction in the supply of wealth. Future archaeologists who ponder the ruins of small city-states in the deserts of North America will know that even as the need for oil siphoned money out of the American financial system, cultural rituals survived. Ruined amphitheaters and sports complexes will be identified as sites of human sacrifice, where high priests of losing financial-services companies had their hearts torn out and eaten by the high priests of winning financial-services companies. Money will have remained a god even in its absence.

Future archaeologists will move sand to uncover the works of the Americans. Our drought will have been longer and more severe, aided by the carbon dioxide created by burning remaining fossil fuels. Our canal system will have been buried under dunes.

Here and there, shifting sands will reveal objects of ancient worship: BMWs, SUVs and the occasional Jaguar.

John Rember is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Stanley.