9.5: The Environment in an Age of Intense Globalization
WATCH: Water and Classical Civilizations
Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course World History and today we’re going to talk about our old friend, the rise and fall of civilizations. And we're going to look at it through the lens of War! No, just kidding, resources. Really Mr. Green? Haven’t we MINED that topic enough? I see what you did there, Me From the Past, and I do like your puns. I don’t like much about you, but I like puns. But we do talk a lot about resources and environmental issues in this series, because, you know, uh, they’re important. You know, because we just have the one planet on which to have history. But today we’re going to switch things up by looking at time periods and regions, and a resource that we haven’t examined before. So rather than like food or animals or precious metals, today we’re going to talk about water, without which we wouldn’t have food or animals. And precious metals would be of very limited use, because we also wouldn’t have humans. And we’re going to travel to the classical Mayan and Khmer civilizations in Central America and South East Asia respectively. Well, we’re not actually going to travel there because we don’t have the budget for a time machine. [Theme Music] So, not only would we die of thirst without water, we also need to have enough of it around to raise plants and animals, because, you know, that’s how we eat. Some places get enough rain to support agriculture, but the vast majority don’t, which is why irrigation is often a requirement for building cities and stuff. And then there are places on Earth that get too much water, often because seasonal rains cause rivers to flood. And in these place people need to build dams and levees to control the flooding and also to channel the extra water to places where it can be useful. These kinds of projects, like, reservoirs, wells and cisterns are all examples of water control, or what some people call “hydraulic engineering.” So, we know that we need agriculture for cities, and what we call civilization, and in most places, some form of hydraulic engineering is necessary for agriculture, which means it’s necessary for everything that comes after. But water isn’t just for drinking and eating. Like, those of you who remember the Indus Valley episode recall that Mohenjo Daro featured a giant basin that we called the Great Bath, which historians believe had a ritual function. And even if it didn’t, bathing is important for keeping clean. You know, one of the things that we use water for is sanitation and hygiene. And in dry regions the ability to control water can be symbolic of wealth and power. I mean, look at Las Vegas. Why do you think there’s this fountain at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas in the middle of a desert? It’s a way of bragging. Look at all of the money we took from you at our casino. But, quite a while before that, the Mayans managed to build a remarkably complex culture in one of the world’s least hospitable regions, and they couldn’t have done it without water management. Mayan culture reached its peak between 250 and 900 CE, and it was centered in the Yucatan peninsula in what is now Mexico and reached into parts of what today are Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The Mayans developed complex mathematics primarily used to create calendars that do NOT predict the end of the world. And they also had a writing system, which described their religion and their rulers, the Holy Lords, who were both political and religious leaders. When the Mayan civilization collapsed it was not because all the people died out – you can still find many a Mayan today – but because these Holy Lords lost their authority. At which point the Mayans stopped living in their massive temple complexes. But we should start at the beginning. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. So as we mentioned before, the Yucatan is not an ideal place to build a civilization. Most of it is a karst plain with a bedrock of limestone. The soils are poor and the water table is too low to excavate wells without modern digging equipment. There aren’t many rivers and rainfall is highly seasonal, with torrential downpours during the unpredictable wet season and a long dry season. Much of Mayan agriculture was small scale, but it produced enough surplus to provide tribute for the Holy Lords. Archeological records show that by 1000 BCE people were digging ditches to drain swamps, and settlements were built in such a way to capture rain runoff. Tikal is one of the major Mayan centers that has over 3000 structures in its 16 square kilometer footprint. It took generations to build and it “entirely lacked a natural supply of water: no springs, rivers, or lakes in its immediate vicinity.” So to supply water for the estimated 60,000 people who lived and worked there they created reservoirs. But, a diverse environment meant diverse solutions to water issues. At Edzna they built cisterns to capture rainwater and canals to connect reservoirs to the central ceremonial complex. They were able to collect 2 million cubic meters of water from runoff. At Palenque, in the lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico, they built “aqueducts, dams, channels, drains and a bridge,” to control flooding caused by streams that fed the city. And in all these places, water management required a ton of labor. How much of this was cooperative and how much was coerced, we can’t really say. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Another thing we can’t really know for sure is the role that water played in Mayan politics and religion, but we can make some educated guesses. Mayan art features a lot of water motifs, so much so that one scholar has described the Maya as “having a fascination with aquatic iconography.” It is also quite possible that the authority of the Holy Lords rested on their ability to control water. Like anthropologist Lisa Lucero has argued that the Holy Lords controlled the reservoirs and distributed water to the people during the dry season in return for tribute in the form of food and labor. And if this was true, it was a very dangerous game to play for the Holy Lords, because basing your claim to power on an ability to bring rain can get you in trouble when a drought comes along. And, of course, they do. Mexico in fact can be particularly vulnerable to drought related to our old historical actor friend El Nino. And scientists, oh it’s time for the Open Letter. But first let’s see what’s in the globe today. Uh-oh, it is a warm swirl of water off the coast of South America. An Open Letter to El Nino. Hey El Nino. You mean, 'the boy'. 'The boy', man, meteorologists are the only people in the world worse at naming things than historians. But the boy in question is Christ, like as a child. And that shows that our deep connection between weather and religion goes back a long time. Now, like a lot of weather patterns, El Niño, you have your upsides and your downsides. But in the end, El Niño, what I find so fascinating about you is that you can make and unmake civilizations and kings and queens in a way that no one else can. Well, except maybe the Mongols. [Mongoltage] So yeah, El Niño, people could talk about Cleopatra and Alexander the Great and Hammurabi, but you're where the real action is. Best Wishes, John Green Right, so scientists, using tree rings and ice cores have figured out that the Yucatan did suffer a series of droughts that correspond to the decline of Maya power. But as impressive as the Maya were, in some ways they pale in comparison to the Khmer culture that flourished between 802 and 1327 CE in what is now Cambodia. These days, the Khmer are best known for: 1. Having their name co-opted by the Khmer Rouge and, 2. Building the temples at Angkor, most famously Angkor Wat, the largest religious building ever constructed. Almost as impressive were the reservoirs surrounding the temple complex, especially the West Baray which is 8 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide and at one point held more than 48 million cubic meters of water in it. So the water issues in Cambodia are different from those found in Mexico, but the amount of labor and care that went into dealing with them is the same. And like the use of water in Mayan complexes, the function of the barays is not fully known. Like it’s not clear if they were used for irrigation during the dry season or flood control during the monsoon. Like, Steven Mithen said that they might have been an attempt to recreate heaven on earth. The problem is we don’t know a whole lot about the people who lived at Angkor except what we can glean from a few of the relief carvings and a Chinese written account from the 13th century, but most of them were peasant rice farmers. Angkor Wat was built by king Suryavarman II in the 12th century, so it was a relatively late addition, and came after the construction of the West Baray a century earlier. Modern archaeological techniques, including imaging from space have revealed that the barays and moats surrounding the temples, most of which are gone today, were linked by a series of channels. So, it was probably like a really big lazy river. But the archaeologists haven't found any inner tubes or beer cans. Yeah, we just don't know what their function was. Bernard Philippe Groslier, who characterized Angkor as a “hydraulic city,” thought that the barays were built to catch monsoon water that would be used to irrigate rice during the dry season. And he assumed that a lot of centralized control was needed to provide for food and water for this gigantic population of around 1.9 million people, at least according to his estimate. That sounds like a good theory but then anthropologist W. J. van Liere argued that religious considerations probably determined the layout of the barays because they weren't well situated for irrigation. But then again, maybe they were just built inefficiently because of government incompetence or corruption which is, you know, not unprecedented. As with the Maya, we don’t exactly know what led to the decline of the Khmer, but environmental factors probably played a role. We know that monsoons weakened in the middle to late 14th century, and also that droughts would sometimes alternate with intensely wet years. And although the Khmer made the hydraulics system at Angkor increasingly complex, it probably just couldn't keep up with the fluctuations. But regardless of how the Khmer civilization ended, we know that humans cannot survive without water and just as it was a major concern for classical civilizations, water control remains an issue for the present and especially for the future. Today, over 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and, "By 2025 more than half of the world's nations will face significant shortages of fresh water." So we have good reason to believe that environmental shifts and failing water control systems led to the collapse of classical civilizations like the Maya and the Khmer, right? So, we might have good reason to be worried given our current voracious thirst and poor record of water conservation. Now, one lesson we might draw is that it's a bad idea to build huge cities in places that don't have water... Phoenix. We've got a lot more people on earth than at any point in history and we have the exact same amount of water. But having more people also means that we have more innovators and we are getting better about technology to better use water. And, as Steven Mithen has written, "We also have knowledge about the ancient world to guide us in the present and the future: understanding the past enables us to see the present more clearly." Now like all fans of history, I'm a bit biased on that subject, but I tend to agree. And so we need to understand that history is not just about humans interacting with each other, but also about the ways that humans interact with the larger world. Thanks for watching. I'll see you next week. 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