Episode 126: Greendiana Jones - Simple Living Lessons from the Maya with Eric Gibson
GreenTalk Radio Host Sean Daily discusses simple living, anthropology and lesson from the Maya culture with Dr. Eric Gibson.
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Sean Daily: Hey, everybody welcome to Green Talk Radio. This is Sean Daily. I'm excited about today's episode. My guest is Dr. Eric Gibson. He's an author-archeologist, an anthropologist who holds a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University. He has special and extensive experience with the Maya culture. And, live for ten years among various aboriginal groups including the Maya. Eric also directed archeological research projects in Central America, French Polynesia and North America. And, last but not the least; he is the author of an archeological mystery novel entitled 'Nine Lords of the Night' which is set against the background of Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in 1993.
So, first of all, Eric welcome to the program.
Dr. Eric Gibson: Thanks for having me.
Sean: It is our pleasure. We're going to be talking today about: Learning about Eco-Living and Green Living from ancient civilization since, specifically, I think we're going to end up talking a quite a bit of the Maya culture. So, why don't we just start right there, Eric. Tell us about, I knew that you have a lot of special knowledge about that culture but also several others. May be you just tell us .some, first, basic information about the Maya culture. Sort of what it makes it special and significant in history and, .the most curious, a little bit of stories about how you came to study it.
Eric: Oh, boy, that's going to take a couple of minutes.
Sean: That's an out fall.
Eric: [giggles] Well, the Maya were one of the high civilizations of the new world, probably the entire world for that matter. There seen as the peak of the classic Maya period in 900 AD. They covered all of what is now Guatemala, Chiapas, Belize, good portion of Honduras and other portions of southern and western Mexico. And, what a little known fact, I think, by most people, is that they were able to sustain a population that, it’s harder to believe, it is meant to be three times larger than what the number of people live there now. And the way they did that was through extensive agricultural projects like: rice fields’ agriculture, terracing, irrigation; they had game parks; they were very much in tune with their environment.
Sean: Interesting. Now you mentioned in some of your writings that they flourished for many years in harsh environments, and in your book you discussed their culture and ecology. Can you share some of that information specifically with our listeners?
Eric: Yes. Not until 20 years ago when we started using a side scanning radar to penetrate the tropical rain forest that archeologist from university of Texas, Richard Adams and a few other guys looked at the satellite imagery and they notice networks of canals, grids, roads and, just structures and infrastructures that we have no idea existed until that technology was brought there on the tropical low ends.
The Maya were able to mobilize and organize their people to, basically take land like swamps, like the mangrove swamps that you see there now. Raise up these fields with mud, recycled food and, basically they knew how to decompose in a very large and grand scale. That's how they supported such a large population.
That always leads to the question of ‘What happened?’, ‘Why did that system break down?’
Of course, we don't know all the answers but it does in deed looks like warfare. And, a period of droughts. Once the population got such a large extent. When you had droughts in one region it affected the people that believe and, of course, feed themselves. So, they would go up against the cultures they were so closely connected to by kinship and lineages. That would be a bad thing because of the people were actually supposed to be growing crops are now fighting people.
Eric: It's the domino effect.
Eric: That's why it took probably two or three centuries for the classic period to turn to the post classic period, the period of great brutality and warfare.
Sean: So, that's pretty conclusive and that you consider really that it was the warfare and, sort of the appropriation of those resources - the agricultural resources to warfare. Is that pretty much considered among scholars the accepted reason for the down fall of the Mayas?
Eric: You know, scholars never accept everything.
Sean: [tickled] And certainly not unilaterally.
Eric: [funny] No. But I would say that for the last 20 years that’s kind cool I've seen around the idea that progressed over time they indeed compete for resources and then they took the guys who were made good farmers and they turn them into soldiers. And who's doing the farming? Right? I mean, the thing about the rice field agriculture that I was talking about that you could see over Belize and into the region of Guatemala that requires a fair amount of maintenance. And if take these people out of the maintenance loop pretty soon the jungle reclaims it and then it's a big disaster waiting situation that keeps getting worse and population continuous to do different things to get it's food and you see the movement towards the coast lines. So, they started to be more maritime focused in the late classic period. You see areas being abandoned were there's a lot of warfare.
Sean: [agreeing] Now, this is interesting. Archeology and anthropology have served become sexy in the media. It's kind funny, I mean in Indiana Jones, I think Carlos Castanedas did this in the 70s for anthropology and then we've seen certainly with the Indiana Jones films that they came out originally back, I guess that was the late 70s through out the 80s. And, then, have now of course research with the latest installment. It's kind of become sexy and I think it also a lot of people now are interesting to see how we're studying ancient civilizations. There have been books such as 'Are We Rome'. They're looking at sort of the appetizer for past civilization to say such as roman civilization. And, now they treat us on the Maya' civilization.
What went wrong in terms of the society, culturally or even ecologically as may be the case of these cultures to see in what we can learn from them before it's too late on our end. So, I want to talk to you more about that. So we'll boggy right back. We're going to take a quick break and I'll be back with Dr. Eric Gibson. We'll be back in Green Talk Radio in just a few brief moments. Thanks everybody.
Sean: Okay, and we're back on Green Talk Radio. We're talking on: Learning about Eco -living and Green Living from Maya and Other Civilizations. My guest is Dr. Eric Gibson. He's author-archeologist/anthropologist with the PhD from Harvard University. He's also the author of ‘Nine Lords of the Knight’ which you can find online at www.nineorgs.com.
Eric, we're talking before the break just about some of the basics of Mayan history... Is it Maya history or Mayan history? Do put an 'n' on that? I was wondering about that.
Eric: Oh, you know, you can say the easy way. The way I heard it in Harvard, so that's must be right.
Sean: Okay. ..I think fine reading references online so it's getting confused on that. The wiki entry also uses Maya or is it?
Eric: Either way is acceptable but most archeologists would say 'Maya' because it can be use as singular or plural.
Sean: Okay. So, we're talking about some of the Maya history and the culture and the break down of that culture and some of the things scholars’ spells happened there. I just to find out a little bit about... I want to ask you question related to anthropology and archeology. But, actually, before we can go any further there I like to break those terms down, if you would not mind helping for listening audience. Give us some quick break down the differences between anthropology and archeology.
Eric: Sure. Anthropology is the study of human behavior and humans in all places and all times. It's very broad field. Archeology is study of the past, the material, the culture of this human we are trying to reconstruct the ways of life were. And archeology itself can be broken down to several different sub fields. Like nautical archeology - those are the guys do the shipwrecks, historical archeology deal with the historical period with European contact. In the new world, it's a very fascinating period. And, there are the prehistorians like I am the period before the European contact. There is also Classical... archeology which is Greek and roman. And biblical archeology which is the archeology of the bible with the Israelis. Many different universities in the United States got lots of good departments to do that.
Sean: Okay. Thanks. I appreciate you doing that. So, being as you are about anthropologist and archeologist having all these experience that you have in cultures like the Maya culture. I was just curious, this is one of the reasons that we want to talk to you today is that may be you could share some of the things that you've learned about, eco-living and environmentally friendly living, and simple living from these cultures.
Eric: Sure. I would say that from the happiest people on that lived among are people having least amount of material things and stuff. You know, if I was to be drop somewhere in the tropical rain forest with only one or two tools. The first tool would be a machete. And the other tool would be a hammer. And with those two things you can basically make it down there. And I've seen guys do that. [giggles]
Sean: Really, just a machete and a hammer?
Eric: Oh yeah. It's amazing what a Maya Indian, one in the modern Maya, worked within Belize, form example, can do with a machete., I mean, they open up beer bottles, they turn the coconut pretty quickly. They can fashion tools. They’re amazing. They even build a hut from the ground up. Talk about what's the necessary tool? What one thing you are going to need? It's going to be a machete down there. And, like I said they seem to reflect on everything. You just don't feel a whole lot of big trash piles around their villages. That's something I came to admire by just living among them. It's little they really wanted. They just want to have food and shelter and able to observe their religious practices and everyday if nothing bad happened it's a good day. I mean, they're just happy people. Very well adapted to their environment.
Sean: So you tribute that to the lack of stuff and what in distractions that they're living a simple life... [interrupted]
Eric: At least they're not yet getting constantly bombarded with commercials to tell them that they will demise if they don't have a BMW 850.
Sean: [agreeing] Right. The culture consumerism.
Eric:Yeah. I mean just like the little saying ' they have what they want and want what they have.' I just hope they're in balance. That doesn't mean they would turn down a nice 4x4.
Sean: [humored] Right. But there's the difference that and hinging your happiness on having it.
Eric: Yes. And they do not. Hinge their happiness on things. Their happiness seems on family and friends and social networks.
Sean: And I knew that Buddha says, ' desires are root of suffering’ I guess it's sort of co-related to that.
Eric: Yes, It is. There's actually proof of it. And they're not the only ones like that too. You see that also among Indian reservations in New Mexico. And, of course, there's the casino in different time and things. But I think that's just the revenge of the white men [giggles]
Sean: Yeah. That adds in new cases of there only the opportunity to maintain civilization and financial process.
Eric: Really, there's nothing much else you could with it. Right?
Sean: It's a very unfortunate end result to that long standing problem.
Somebody make the argument that the reason sort of eco-harmony going back to the lack of waste that you mentioned not seeing on the streets and things like that might be to the fact that they have such a lack and they are so impoverished. I mean, could be on that? Do you get a certain inherent cultural harmonization with the environment? That's really rooted in the foundations of the culture?
Eric: Some say that’s exactly what it is. And it has been the way it is for millennia. They don't feel impoverished.
Sean: Why have we lost that?
Eric: You know, it's something that we've evolved here in the west... it's the technological advances, it's the radical changes. I was thinking about that the other night. And I saw there would be blood with Daniel Day Lewis. It's a perfect example of 180 degrees of the Maya way of life.
Sean: Right. We're going to take one more break here and we'll be back. We're talking on: Learning about Eco-living and Green Living from Maya and Other Cultures. My guest is Dr. Eric Gibson. His book is 'Nine Lords of the Night'. You can find that online. Am I correct? It’s also available in e-book as well, Eric?
Eric: Yes. It's available in the kindle format in amazon.com as well.
Sean: And it's ninelords.com. And we'll be right back in Green Talk Radio.
Sean: Hey everyone, we're back on Green Talk Radio. This is Sean Daily. Today we're talking about: Learning about Eco-living from Maya Civilization and Other Cultures, and Anthropology and Archeology as Relates to Green Living'. My guest, talking to me about that, is Dr. Eric Gibson. He's an author- archeologist.
I'm having a hard time on... I want to mix them together, 'anthrocheopologist'. Something like that.
Anyway, he's an archeologist and anthropologist and holds a PhD from Harvard. He has a book out which is called 'Nine Lords of the Night' and it's actually a fictional work but I think it is kind for anthropology what the Da Vinci Code did for art curators and code junkies as for code crackers. We're talking before the break about lot of things. Actually, we were talking about certain examples and Mayan civilization with that it really related in eco-living and simple living and sort of the roots of unhappiness and modern consumerism and things like that. I want to switch gears a little bit in the segment and talk about. I think one gets the impression in pop culture and for the media sometimes that ancient civilizations and people really need of cultures throughout history or at least majority of them have lived in complete harmony with nature and their immediate environment. I often questioned whether that was really the case. Do you have examples of any prehistoric cultures that were, perhaps, out of balance with their environment as we've become in so many ways?
Eric: Yes. There’re a lot of them. Easter Island, Polynesians. They went a little bit nuts. Tied up the heads, over reaching the resource base.
One of the first ones that I encountered were basically the prehistoric culture made a mistake and clearly the mistake they made with the environment is if you go out to the Olympic peninsula in the Washington State, keep flattery, there's an archeological site there called Ozette. Which is one of the best preserve archeological sites in the north America and they are sometimes called north America’s Pompeii because things were covered up all at once in less than place in perfectly preserved under tons of mud.
And the reason that happened to this village is that they had a ridge line behind their village, they're right on the beach. The ridge line, they cut every tree down to build the village, plake houses and so forth. These are very sophisticated northwest coast culture Indians who made a living lately with long boots, harpoons and so forth. So, they hade a period of extensive rain and its like capsize them. The evidence, they buried it out. And a giant mud slide occurred because they've taken all the trees down. That's a pretty good example of being out of balance would you say?
Sean: Definitely. That's an ancient clear cutting and the results of it.
Eric: Yeah, but because of that everything was left in place. It's a very rich archeological site. I would gather that the Makah Indians thought it was rather unfortunate incident.
Sean: Do you have other examples of complete cultural wipe-out from living out of harmony? Or was, is it that cultures are pushed that far? At least most people believe in this culture we are on the verge of possibly doing.
Eric: Yeah. As I was saying, the Easter Island, the Polynesians, they just about over tasking the environment to the point was they kill each other for gigs.
Sean: Was that complete elimination of their society as a result of that?
Eric: Not completely but certainly impacted it to the extent they cut the population down by 90% in one generation. That's pretty close.
Sean: That's pretty significant. Yes that's pretty close as that.
Eric: But, you know, what's interesting is? The Hawaiians, on the other hand, where I worked in Kawaii and Maui… Can you believe that my first job, an ecology graduate from University of Oregon, undergrad, once I got to work in Hawaii.
Sean: You can work in worst places.
Eric: [humored] Yeah.
Sean: I remember I was on Tahiti and he was on Maria and I saw that the University some place in the United States had a scientific output for college kids on Maria. I thought that was a great one to land.
Sean: Those kids are sakes.
Eric: Yep. I really did feel that one out until I hit the jackpot. I first work out there for about nine or ten months. I guess it’s called Cultural Resource Management. It's the official term we used to call salvage archeology. That would be like one it's going to be a big tourist. Like one time we went to a place called Mau Worst in Maui. That was to move prehistoric Hawaiian cemetery out of the way so they can put up this great big resort complex which is there now. Although...it's about being involve and moving all these burials. But came back to work I was in charge of the management of their ecological resources. The Hawaiians realize early on that they need to have a way to get every lineage every clan. They're very highly involved chief. They're probably like rank civilizations. The Polynesians, Hawaii probably just on a calf of becoming as complicated as the Maya and in turn about just becoming a state. Large state with lots of cities and so forth. but I think they were held back by the fact they were on these islands and they recognized that they needed to have a piece of the ecology every clan has equal access and so they created these districts that you can picture Maui guide. They would start from the beach and they will fill up in the foot hills and they go all the way up in the ridge line and so you have equal access to water, you have equal access the best area to grow bread fruit and, the hunting like the game preserves and they sliced the islands up in pie shape. The boundaries. And there were even boundaries marked by stone walls. That was pretty sophisticated and that worked pretty well for them until you do your kin showed up. They were even close to being exact opposite to what happened in Easter Island.
Sean: Okay. I knew you discussed somebody's writings how the destructions of Mayan environments today is damaging the field of ethnobotany. I'm just curious if you like to elaborate a little bit about that here.
Eric: First of all, I should play the boy from one of my colleagues when I was in school. Wade Davis does a series on Smithsonian channel called the 'Goliath Eating the World'. Wade and I are there at the same time in grad school. Ethnobotany is some field of anthropology is a study of medicinal applications of native plants. Back, I was explaining what a Shaman, but the common name for a Shaman is a witch doctor. But this is the healer in any given tribe or culture. These men and women, the Shaman, they have element of knowledge what the plants are and what the properties are and how they can be used to heal people. And they use magic and medicine together into fluvial complex rituals. But one of the things I talked about is as rain forest has approximately to a million or so species complex plants that covered the earth. After 200 years of study Ethnobotanist can name you about one to 250,000 of them. So when you start logging and displacing the native cultures and logging and destroying the forest you're losing more than just forest. You're losing knowledge and you could be losing them potential of a drug. A pharmaceutical product that could be develops from their knowledge but they're not there anymore and neither is the forest.
Sean: And has always typical has been the role of the Shamans and each of these cultures to understand… to be essentially Ethnobotanist within the tribe. But from healing perspective of a more pragmatic physical healing as well as on the spiritual side?
Eric: Exactly. That's exactly what they do. They do that and more. I mean, they have ‘magical’ powers and they can stoke some cultures that they can shape shift. Have this animals familiar that they can send to spy on your enemies or put a curse on you. It goes beyond medicine. But it's all tied up in the same ideological bundle. Medicine and magic they are all part of this thing.
Sean: and that extends the stake with the perceptions of some western cultures that they did magic. And some, you know, quite frankly, they do things that are close to that and feel like that so...
Eric: There’s anthropological literature on the power of belief. It's tied in the study of Shamans and theses cultures. And if you think about, even a modern western trained doctors will tell you that a patient has the will and really believes that they're going to defeat the subversions... that’s the 5o% of ..
Sean: Psychosomatic essentially.
Eric: Exactly. So, we can dismiss them as medicine men but its works, right?
Sean: If it's worth it. It's good. I think the bottom line...
Eric: Exactly, somebody says, if you heal me I believe what you do. And that's how they manage to sustain themselves, with the respect and the credibility for that with in the local villages.
Sean: Eric, as an archeologist. I'm curious, how you feel that your field is depicted, for example, in Indiana Jones movies?
Eric: Well, you know, I was an archeologist before I show Indiana Jones. I can't claim to be in the generation that was influenced by the movies but I do believe that was a good thing. Because, I think, archeologist today who earn their 30s and their 20s, many of them, were attracted by the romanticized version of archeology that's presented in those movies and I like them and entertainment just much as anybody else does but in may opinion Indiana Jones is one of the worst archeologist I ever seen.
Sean: Is that right? Why?
Eric: Because every site he works at gets to shred.
Sean: I supposed that is violating the prime directive of archeology.
Eric: Well, that's not the general idea, right? To blow things up and have big things going down. Things collapsing. You're supposed to stop the whole tomb collapsing on you. It's really not recommendable.
Sean: Point taken.
Eric: But at the same time I guess I like the movie although I thought the last one was pretty far out there because the crystals skulls all proven to be fakes. Not one of them is credible archeological artifact in any excavation with any non contacts. It's very interesting that crystals skulls never been found any bone-fired archeologist that it seems creeping in to some by collections somewhere. And, you've seen the movie?
Sean: Yes. I was not even aware that the crystal skulling was a reference to anything based on purported fact. So that's interesting to me. I thought that was a…[interrupted].
Eric: Oh, it's been around. They were well known facts since the mid 19th century. But I just thought, hear and poured out. And put them in David and company and send them in exact spot because. I didn't see how the whole lot to do with archeology.
Sean: Now, we're always talking about that. I'm going to put on at the risk of putting on my tin foil hat and asking a tin-foil-hat question there. I don't have one of them. It’s more on the other side of the fence. But empirical computer scientist by nature but I am curious because there're the references in the film and I think there had been long standing beliefs by many people that some of the technology that various civilization have had, example the Egyptians, wit the building of the pyramids and the Mayans. Even in the ancient Toltecs and goes on and on. They exceeded what would seem to be even by the estimation of many anthropologists their capacity to learn and understand or in some cases perform constructions feats some things like that.
Is there any reliable evidence, whatsoever, that any culture in history, I mean anything, anyone anytime. Was ever visited or given.
Let me put it this way, that scientist; anthropologist can not explain how that culture came upon that information?
Sean: So, that's all explainable.
Eric: It's the center of the saying, ‘all theses poor barbaric cultures only alien intelligence could have able them to build the great pyramid of Egypt, The great pyramids down there in Chiapas and write about my book. If you say archeology and get in to it to the level you have to. Hold graduate degrees in it you can see there's plenty of evidence, over time, for them to develop each one of the technologies, shall we say others, that chariots of the gods like one that, I think one of the guys started the whole thing off back in the 70s.
They just seem not wanting to give the indigenous cultures credit to figure things out. And large enough work force and organized engineering crew these pyramids can be built. And they were built quite often and quite well. It's interesting to me that I'm...
How can I put this? I mean the truth is out there, right? I mean it's quite possible that there are life forms somewhere else in the universe besides earth. It seems kind of human self-centeredness to think we're the only ones. But when it comes to archeology, there's no shed of evidence that any alien cultures did anything.
Eric: Now that, I think, I could be more uncritical than that.
Sean: And, so, before we go, I’m just curious, Eric, did you have any final thoughts you want to share with our listening audience?
Eric: Well, green and simple living, I mean I think I was first introduce when I live in Oregon when I was an undergraduate of University of Oregon. Eugene, Oregon, is one of the most green cities I think in the United States.
But, by nature, when we, archeologist, went into the filed we have to be respectful of the land and the land owners and we have to try to leave the smallest foot print as possible and to that end we don't disturb archeological site too much. We have a very organize way of taking care of waste. We have water pumps to solar heating to big oil drums create the showers that we luke-cold because they weren't even luke-warm. If its one thing that I would say whenever ask me if I’m on the field what I missed the most about civilization? I would just been able to walk into a place and get a hot shower. Really hot.
Sean: I find most people who travel in all over the country seems to be the common thing to say. I know on my own experience that's exactly how I feel as well. It's the greatest of all modern luxuries I supposed
Eric: There's just sometime exciting when you're packing to the field and you figuring it out just what you need. Right?
Like two duffle bags. And all your goods are in those two duffle bags. When you got to the airport and get ready to fly to different country and go set up a camp in remote area and you get into the land where get cross the dirt roads. It’s a euphoric feeling because, I think part of it you left all your stuff behind, Sean.
Sean: I agree with you. Hundred percent I think there is a certain period of existence. Almost a return to the complete self. At least, I totally I experienced on my own. Few and fleeting moments which I had very little stuff. There's something very special about that. Yeah, I agree with you.
Eric: I think that's one of the great things about being on an archeological project because you gradually become to appreciate the few arms you have and it become more like the people that you're working with. Like the old native routine. Right?
I mean you live in hammocks and mosquito nets. You've got bad spots. You live the life just Maya do.
I would back on those times with just great deal just the faction and I missed them sometimes. It's just a great thing to do. Immerse yourself into another way of life that's much more simple and less stressful really than what we have here on the daily basis.
Sean: I really appreciate you being in the program today and it's been a fascinating discussion. I really enjoyed it. I want to point out to people listening today especially relates to simple living concepts that were discussed into this program we have the entire section on the GreenlLvingiIeas.com website that relates to simple living and concepts there about. So, we invite you to visit that section that say under the topics menu and the simple living sub menu and there are different topics underneath there under simple living. So, my guest again today has been Dr. Eric Gibson. He’s archeologist, I’ll get it one of these days, He’s an anthropologist who holds a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University. He is the author of the book, it’s a fictional book that makes anthropology cool, called ‘Nine Lords of the Night’ and you can find that online at ninelords.com.
I want to thank again my guest Eric Gibson and I also want to thank all of you for listening today from Green Talk Radio from GreenLivingIdeas.com. We’ll see you next time.
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