Spotlight on Research: The Collapse of Tropical Civilizations

Published 18 November 2013 ~

Dr. Gyles Iannone is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, and is the recipient of a $74,720 SSHRC Insight Development grant. His two-year pilot study will evaluate the quality of archaeological data which elucidates the reasons for the collapse of a number of tropical states during the period CE 800-1400.

So, your research concerns, roughly speaking, are about the decline or collapse of tropical societies?

If I were pressed to explain [my research] very quickly to somebody, it would be trying to understand the collapse, particularly of tropical civilizations, and of some of the great ones that we know of, like the Maya and the Khmer. The longer version is that [I’m looking to] understand why these civilizations became vulnerable, and why they ran into issues. You have to actually go back in time, and [try] to understand the whole set of issues related to living in the tropics. You have to understand environments and all these sorts of things, so collapse kind of ends up being the last chapter.

But to understand that last chapter, you have to understand the whole book. Earlier on when I was doing some of this research, I talked about studying the collapse of complex societies, whereas now I would say I study socio-ecological relations in the tropics … of which one of the topics ends up being the collapse [of societies].

I understand that there’s a comparative element to the project—you’ll be comparing South and Southeast Asian states to Mesoamerican states? Can you explain how that comparative analysis will be done?

The comparative analysis is sort of a different way of doing archeology now. For 23 years, I’ve been in the Maya area, and my archeology has really been focused on doing what people traditionally think of archeologists doing. The comparative approach now is much more about working with extant data sets. We’re trying to look at certain data sets that we think are relevant to understanding resilience and vulnerability in an environmental relationship.

For example, one of the things we’re all attracted to is what we call the epicentres, the ‘downtowns’ of the capitals of all these places. These are the parts of these ancient states that are now reconstructed or consolidated. We’re interested in looking at those investments in labour and surplus that went into constructing those things. They tethered these societies to a certain part of the landscape, which ties into resilience because it’s much harder to move once you’ve invested.

We can compare epicentres: how big were these epicentres; how were they planned; what kinds of building techniques did they use; what kinds of buildings are there? We’re also interested in looking at water management. For example, all of these societies are what another colleague of mine, Roland Fletcher, calls Monsoonal. They developed in regions where you have fairly marked wet and dry seasons, and that means that you have to somehow, if you’re going to have larger populations, learn how to control, store, and manage water resources.

And so, there’s another area where we can compare: how did they deal differentially with managing and storing water? You can go from small reservoirs in the Maya area that might be the size of a swimming pool, to Cambodia, where we can see multiple reservoirs, some of which are eight kilometres long and two kilometres wide.

We’re also interested in agriculture. These are all agrarian societies, and all of them had to deal with the fact that tropical soils tend to be fairly nutrient-poor. Most of the nutrients in the tropics are in the biomass, they’re in the trees and they’re in the litter mat on the surface, but once you start clearing land and you just get down to the soil, there’s actually not a lot of nutrients, and they get leached out very quickly when the rains come. So they all had to learn how to make their land more productive over time if they wanted to create surpluses. In some cases like the Maya area, they built terraces. If you get into South and Southeast Asia, they eventually develop irrigation systems and various forms of wet rice farming, rice patties, these sorts of things.

We’re also interested in other things, like did they or did they not build road networks? What kinds of mechanisms were out there that integrated the centres with the peripheries? In some cases, if you go to Cambodia for instance, you see that they built roads, bridges, hospitals, rest houses, different temples and monasteries … so that’s what the comparative approach is all about.

The overarching question is to try to understand tropical societies and adaptation to the tropics, and the different (or similar) choices that they made. They all started with similar initial conditions. As they grow and expand they start to have to make decisions. What decisions were the same? What patterning is there? But also, what did they choose to do differently, and, therefore, what made these societies successful, but also, in the end, vulnerable to things like climate change, the predatory nature of states on their borders, that kind of thing. That’s the comparative aspect. We’re working with data that’s out there already, but trying to pull it together into this one thematic overview.

You have a number of graduate students working with you. Is this research going to be the basis for their theses or dissertations?

The SSHRC Insight Development grant we have right now is like a large seed grant. It’s money that’s not there for actually going out and doing what we would we would consider full-on research. Instead, what they’re meant for is to help new scholars, or to help established scholars such as myself to switch gears. I applied as someone who’d been digging in the Maya area for 23 years and now had very new ideas about what I wanted to do, so the seed grant then allows me now to do some of this background research.

A lot of this is about data evaluation: what can we compare, what can’t we, what’s out there. There’s five students that will go on a series of four trips that will take us from south India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, north and central Vietnam, and Java. [Each student] will then have, as part of their Master’s thesis or PhD dissertation, a particular focus. … We’ll have a range of theses and dissertation topics that are part of the broader research, and then my job is to synthesize some of these preliminary findings.

The idea behind the seed grant is to take the results of this data evaluation, and, as we’re moving through that process, make linkages with researchers in these different areas so we’ll then be able to apply for a larger grant, which will actually allow us then to mobilize knowledge. This means we might build a team of 10-15 people who are all experts in these different areas, and we’ll get together at these different locales and talk about the data sets we have. [The broader goal] would be trying to understand what can we learn about the past, which is going to have some broader implications for today.

Tropical societies are really up against it when it comes to things like climate change, poverty, and growing populations. We can sit here and think that, “Well, that’s got nothing to do with us,” but it does, particularly if we want to think about rising sea levels, climate change, and migrations of people out of the tropics because things are not good there. That’s going to affect everybody in the world.

So, what I always try to instill in my students now is that we get the inspiration for our research from what’s going on around us. Archeology’s a great tool [that] does not necessarily answer the questions about how do we deal with this now, but instead, provides us with [examples of] possibilities of what we can do, or that, if we don’t do something, then this something that might happen to us later on. If you sat in Angkor in the middle of the 13th century, or you were sitting in a Maya site around 800 AD and you were a big king or part of the royal court, you had no idea that things were going to go the way that they did.

I think sometimes we sit in denial as well, that this could never happen to us. There’s a certain egotism we have that, somehow, we’ll always solve our problems. But the past, the strength of it, is [to show us] that we don’t always solve our problems.

That’s really the ultimate goal, to try to understand tropical societies in general by looking at it through the lens of the past. [We are] awe-inspired by the grandeur of some of these early states, but we also know that, when we’re walking around the ruins of these places, things did go horribly wrong at certain points in time. There are lessons there that we can learn from.