Waiting for Godot
The von Daniken Version
of the Mayan Collapse
|Erich von Daniken|
In a previous posting I briefly reviewed Erich von Daniken’s monumental best seller Chariots of the Gods? Of course I concluded that the book was incredibly silly, basically stunningly wrong, but great fun as a puff piece of absurdest “explanation”. Since then we have seen the creation and broadcasting of the idiotic Ancient Aliens, a show that uses the Ancient Space Aliens nonsense and puts the critical facilities to sleep. Von Daniken along with other “experts” has appeared often on the show promoting his idiocies. However the bottom line was that von Daniken simply didn’t and doesn't know what he was talking about.1
The sheer huge mass of evidence indicating that von Daniken simply was colossally ignorant of so much Archaeology was and is both clear and so is the fact, and it is a fact, that his ideas have little to no merit. Of course that doesn’t mean that von Daniken was not and is still not great fun to read. His enthusiasm is infectious to say the least.2
An example of von Daniken being both utterly wrong and fun is von Daniken’s rather far out speculations concerning the collapse of Mayan civilization. Now the Mayan collapse has been a long standing mystery and at the time that von Daniken wrote it was much more of a mystery than it is now. The results of painstaking archaeological digs and the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs have been to shed an enormous amount of light on the Mayan collapse.3
Now it is important to note that Mayan civilization did not disappear only that Mayan civilization in the central zone, ), between the Guatemala highlands and northern Yucatan peninsula.), vanished between c. 800 – 1000 C.E.4 So that although Mayan civilization collapsed in this zone it continued to survive both north and south of the zone until the Spanish came.4
Von Daniken starts his rather far out speculation concerning the collapse of Mayan civilization in the following manner by referring to two places that have little to do with the Maya:
Ruins in the jungles of Guatemala and Yucatan can bear comparison with the colossal edifices of Egypt. The ground area of the pyramid of Cholula, 60 miles south of the Mexican capital, is bigger than that of the pyramid of Cheops. The pyramid field of Teotihuacan, 25 miles north of Mexico City, covers an area of almost 8 square miles, and all the edifices are aligned according to the stars. The oldest text about Teotihuacan tells us that the gods assembled here and took council about man, even before Homo sapiens existed! 5
Why von Daniken refers to the huge ruins of Cholula and Teotihuacan when he is supposed to be discussing the Maya is beyond me. Oh and the pyramid field of Teotihuacan is not 8 square miles, the entire site is c. 8 square miles. Pyramids occupy only a small portion of that. As for the gods assembling there before man existed that is of course referring to the myth of the creation of the 5th sun. I note that von Daniken neglects to mention that in the myth the gods assembled there before the creation of sun and moon not just humanity. Oh and the site of Teotihuacan is not more than 2500 years old, and man has been around for millions of years. Despite von Daniken’s implication the site is not pre-human.6
Von Daniken then states:
The Mayas did not build pyramids because they needed them; they did not build temples because they needed them; they built temples and pyramids because the calendar decreed that a fixed number of steps of a building had to be completed every 52 years. Every stone has its relation to the calendar; every completed building conforms exactly to certain astronomical requirements. 7
Let’s just say this is a gross oversimplification, but at the time a rather common one concerning the Maya. Today we know things were much more complicated than that.8
Von Daniken describes the collapse as follows:
But an absolutely incredible thing happened about A.D. 600. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, a whole people left its laboriously and solidly built cities, with their rich temples, artistic pyramids, squares lined with statues, and grandiose stadiums. The jungle ate its way through buildings and streets, broke up the masonry, and turned everything into a vast landscape of ruins. No inhabitant ever returned there.9
A fairly dramatic summing up but even in 1968, wrong. The cities were not abandoned in the same year but over a period of over a century for one thing. Further the collapse started c. 760 C.E. not 600 C.E. However in fairness to von Daniken at the time there was still a bit of controversy concerning the dates of the Mayan calendar in relation to our own and some Mayanologists favoured earlier dates. It is now accepted that the later dates are correct. Further it appears that the cities were abandoned but that people did not migrate out but continued to live around the abandoned cities. The population declined slowly for century’s afterwards.10
Von Daniken then says concerning various, then, theories about the Mayan collapse:
The first version put forward was that the Mayas might have been driven out by foreign invaders. But who could have overcome the Mayas, who were at the peak of their civilization and culture? No traces that could be connected with a military confrontation have ever been found. The idea that the migration could have been caused by a marked change in climate is well worth considering. But there are no signs to support this view either. The distance covered by the Mayas from the territory of the old to the borders of the new kingdom measures only 220 miles as the crow flies-a distance that would have been inadequate to escape a catastrophical change in climate. The explanation that a devastating epidemic set the Mayas on the move also deserves serious examination. Apart from the fact that this explanation is offered as one of many, there is not the slightest proof of it. Was there a battle between the generations? Did the young revolt against the old? Was there a civil war, a revolution? If we opt for one of these possibilities, it is obvious that only a part of the population, namely the defeated, would have left the country and that the victors would have remained iii their old settlements. Investigations of archaeological sites have not produced one proof that even a single Maya remained behind. The whole people suddenly emigrated, leaving their holy places unguarded in the jungle.11
This is actually a pretty fair summary of various theories concerning the Mayan collapse at the time the book was written. At the time many people did in fact think that the collapse was abrupt and the people left the area suddenly and dramatically. It turns out that von Daniken’s idea, shared by many others including some Mayanologists, that everyone left abruptly is simply wrong. After the cities were abandoned the areas around them were only depopulated slowly.
At the time there was indeed little evidence of climate / environmental change. It does appear that such changes where in fact happening a played a role in the collapse. It also appears that areas like northern Yucatan and highland Guatemala that had more reliable water sources than the central region during the dry season survived the collapse much better. For Mayan civilization did not move to those regions it was flourishing in those regions during the so-called Classic age and survived the collapse.12
The fact is “minor” differences in climate and geology can in fact make the difference between surviving a drought / climate disaster and non-survival. We also now have considerable evidence of inter-city rivalry between the various city states before the collapse. There is some indication of a breakdown of social order and yes some possible revolts. Those also seem to have played some role in the collapse. It does appear to be the case that foreign invasion and forced migration played no role in the collapse. The dynamics of the collapse appear to actually have been internal reasons, allied to drought / climate change. There is also some evidence that environmental degradation brought on by over farming may also have played a role.13
Sadly after this fairly reasonable bit of prose von Daniken decides to:
… venture to make my contribution boldly and with conviction.14
At some point in a very early period the Mayas' ancestors were paid a visit by the "gods" (in whom I suspect space travellers). As a number of factors support the assumption, the ancestors of the American cultural peoples may perhaps have immigrated from the ancient Orient. But in the world of the Mayas there were strictly guarded sacred traditions about astronomy, mathematics, and the calendar. The priests guarded the traditional knowledge because the "gods" had given their word to return one day. They created a grandiose new religion, the religion of Kukulkan; the Feathered Serpent.
According to priestly tradition, the gods would come back from heaven when the vast buildings were completed according to the laws of the calendar cycle. So the people hastened to complete temples and pyramids according to this holy rhythm, because the year of completion was supposed to be a year of rejoicing. Then the god Kukulkan would come from the stars, take possession of the buildings, and from then on live among mankind.
The work was finished, the year of the god's return came around-but nothing happened. The people sang, prayed, and waited for a whole year. Slaves and jewellery, corn and oil, were offered up in vain. But heaven remained dumb and without a sign. No heavenly chariot appeared; they could hear no rushing or distant thunder. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happened.
If we give this hypothesis a chance, the disappointment of priests and people must have been tremendous. The work of centuries had been done in vain. Doubts arose. Was there a mistake in the calculation of the calendar? Had the gods landed somewhere else? Had they all made a terrible mistake?16
And then the cities collapsed has people gave in to utter disappointment. Now the interesting thing about this speculation is that it had precisely no evidence for it and huge amount of evidence against it at the time that von Daniken proposed it and since then extremely, extremely unlikely has become extremely, extremely, extremely unlikely.
There is for example absolutely NO evidence that the Maya ever expected the Gods to return or that they were erecting their cities in expectation of said return. I suspect that von Daniken is using his own rather eccentric variation of the return of Quetzalcoatl myth, which is in fact both central Mexican and not Mayan and to a large extent a post conquest concoction to begin with. So there is no evidence in the now largely deciphered Mayan hieroglyphs of a “promise” of the Gods to return or of any Mayan expectation of same. Further Kukulkan was not a central or very important god during the classic age. It was after the collapse that the god become much more important among the Maya.
Von Daniken’s “priestly tradition” of a return of the gods in a given year is entirely in his head. There is zero evidence for it. And if that is the case then von Daniken’s year of rejoicing etc., is a simple fantasy on his part for which again there is no evidence.
The bottom line is even at the time von Daniken was writing we had a pretty good time line for the collapse. This was because the Mayan mania for recording dates. So we have last dates for sites after site. And the range is quite wide. It varies from Dos Pilas with the date 761 C.E. to Tonia 909 C.E. A period of c. 150 years. There was no dramatic year in which everything fell apart, instead it was a relatively slow collapse. At least compared to what von Daniken is implying. The majority of the collapse seems to have taken place between 780 C.E., and 850 C.E. a period of 70 years. Still not brief enough for von Daniken’s abrupt sudden collapse. Still the collapse would have been very noticeable in the life times of people then living.17
And as mentioned above there is no evidence in the inscriptions of the Maya of any waiting for the “gods” to return and if there was it would be most unlikely that that ”god” would be Kukulkan.
Of course it is of interest that von Daniken has the Maya do this extensive building etc., for the “gods” and he leaves out Old Worlds peoples like the Europeans or Chinese. Of course the lack of writing that could be read was a great help to von Daniken in generating his fantasy. The Maya like so many of the ancient peoples he talked about were basically Rorschach blots on which von Daniken could project his fantasies of ancient astronauts. They were never really there.
2. Here are some books and articles critical of von Daniken:
Omohundro, John T., Von Daniken's Chariots: A Primer in the Art of Crooked Science, in Paranormal Borderlands of Science, Ed. Frazier, Kendrick, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1981, pp. 307-317, Stiebing, William H., Ancient Astronauts, Cosmic Collisions, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY., 1984, pp. 81-106, Bainbridge, William Sims, Chariots of the Gullible, in Frazier, pp. 332-347, Story, Ronald, The Space Gods Revealed, Barnes and Nobles Books, New York, 1976, Randi, James, Flim-Flam, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY., 1982, pp. 109-130, Fritze, Ronald, H., Invented Knowledge, Reaktion Books, London, 2009, pp. 201-210, Krupp, E. C., Observatories of the Gods and Other Astronomical Fantasies, in In Search of Ancient Astronomies, Editor, Krupp, E. C., McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1978, pp. 241-278, at, pp. 269-278, James, Peter & Thorpe, Nick, Ancient Mysteries, Ballantine Books, New York, 1999, pp. 170-171, 202-205, 325-326,Jordan, Paul, The Atlantis Syndrome, Sutton Pub., Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2001, pp. 250-256, Feder, Kenneth L., Irrationality and Popular Archaeology, American Antiquity, v. 49, no. 3, pp. 525-541, Wilson, Clifford, Crash Go the Chariots, Lancer Books, New York, 1972. (Use with caution the guy is a Fundamentalist Christian and it shows.)
3. See Coe, Michael D., Breaking the Maya Code, Thames and Hudson, Third Edition, London, 2012, Webster, David, The Fall of the Ancient Maya, Thames and Hudson, London, 2002, Sharer, Robert J., & Traxler, Loa P., The Ancient Maya, Sixth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2006, pp. 499-588, Schele, Linda, & Freidel, David, A Forest of Kings, William Morrow & Co. Inc., New York, 1990, pp. 377-403, Culbert, T. Patrick, Editor, The Classic Maya Collapse, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque NM, 1973, Drew, David, The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings, Phoenix, London, 1999, pp. 336-380.
4. Drew, pp. 362-395.
5. von Daniken, Erich, Chariots of the Gods?, published in In Search of the Gods: Three Volumes in One, Avenel Books, New York, 1989, (Original pub. Of Chariots… 1969), pp. 5-182) at 119.
6. Coe, Michael D., & Koontz, Rex, Mexico, Seventh Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2013, pp. 105-118.
7. von Daniken, p. 120.
8. Sharer et al, pp. 102-120.
9.vVon Daniken, p. 120.
10. Sharer et, al, pp. 114, 499-529, Schele et al, pp. 344-345, 377-403, Willey, Gordon R., & Shimkin, Demitri B., The Maya Collapse: A Summary View, in Culbert, pp. 457-501, Drew, pp. 336-380, Webster, pp.208-216.
11. Von Daniken, pp. 120-121. For a summary of theories related to the Maya collapse see Adams, Richard E. W., The Collapse of Maya Civilization: A Review of Previous Theories, in Culbert, pp. 3-19.
12. Gill, Richardson B., The Great Maya Droughts, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque NM, 2000, pp. 363-387, Drew, pp. 341-380, Schele et al, pp. 346-376.
13. Gill, pp. 313-387, Webster, pp. 217-259, Sanders, William T., The Cultural Ecology of the Lowland Maya, in Culbert, pp. 325-365.
14. von Daniken, p. 121.
15. IBID, p. 120.
16. IBID, pp. 121-122.
17. Schele et al, pp. 377-403.