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Lisa Lucero brings lessons from the Maya to light

AAAS Fellow Lisa Lucero in the jungles of central Belize in May 2012. Divers explored the cenote (sinkhole) behind her for ancient Maya offerings and to collect paleo-environmental data. (Photo: José Ernesto Vasquez)

The end is near. The end date of the Maya calendar, that is — and quite possibly the end of Lisa Lucero's patience with those who proclaim it the end of the world.

"Soon, they'll be looking for the next thing," says Lucero of those who stubbornly choose fear over fact. "It's like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — except it's the catastrophe."

For nearly 25 years, the AAAS Fellow and anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has conducted research in Belize to unearth the truth about the Maya. Most recently, Lucero is leading a multidisciplinary team exploring the sacred pools of the Maya — a plunge into the past worthy of Indiana Jones himself.

"Any opening in the earth was considered a portal to the underworld, so there was a lot of ritual activity there," says Lucero.

The Maya used ritual and solar calendars to plan everything from farming to sacred and social events. But it is another calendar they used to track royal histories that has captured the public's imagination. Known as the Long Count, it began August 11, 3114 B.C.E. and ends/begins again December 21, 2012.

Though the Maya made no prophecies about the world ending on December 21 — and even refer to post-2012 dates — some believe the calendar end date marks the end of the world.

To explain why the end date is a non-event, Lucero turns to a trusted metaphor.  

"In some old cars, the odometers can't go up to 100,000 miles, so after they reach 99,999, the odometer just goes back to zero again," explains Lucero. "For the Maya, everything was cyclical. Instead of recording one more year, the Long Count just starts at zero again."

Learn more about the Long Count calender

Personally, she thinks it's cool to be living in the end date a time of renewal. Still, "I'll be relieved when it's over, and I hope people are still interested in the Maya and ask more pertinent questions."

Lucero has been asking pertinent questions since Mr. Arnold's social studies class at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colorado. His teachings about human evolution — and her voracious appetite for historical fiction — sparked a passion for ancient civilizations.

"Through historical fiction, I traveled the world in different times in history, and would then go and look things up in the encyclopedia," says Lucero. "I just wanted to learn what made us who we are." 

Her research into the Classic Maya (250 B.C. E. — 950 C.E.) channels Lucero's broader interests in climate change and civilization.

"I'm particularly interested in water," she says. So were Maya rulers, for whom water was a source of power.

Kings built massive, sophisticated reservoir systems to help their subjects survive the six-month dry season.

"The Maya were so knowledgeable — they applied the principles of a wetland biosphere," says Lucero. "They knew how plants, snails and fish work together to keep the water clean."

Though farming was their mainstay, Maya achievements in art, architecture and astronomy continue to inspire wonder today. But Lucero is most keenly interested in what brought it all to an end.

"I'm interested in the aftermath," says Lucero. "Why did subjects abandon their centers and their kings?"

She believes the answer to that intriguing question may be found in caves in the region. Like a tree, stalactites and stalagmites have rings that tell a story about climate change.

"There is increasing evidence for several multi-year droughts between 800 and 900 C.E. — and these set in motion a chain of events," says Lucero. "The power of the Maya rulers was heavily dependent on reservoirs. In the end, they had too many eggs in one basket."

Read more about the droughts that may have caused the decline of Classic Maya society

As the water dried up, farmers migrated out to more coastal areas and some Maya centers saw warfare.

"Throughout history, the first thing people fight about is water," says Lucero, who is quick to point out that violence was relatively rare in the Maya world.

There is, however, no evidence for a massive die-off of the Maya.

"The Maya are still around — it was the kings who disappeared," says Lucero. In fact, she routinely hires Maya field assistants who are keeping ancient wisdom alive.

One of those assistants, Cleofo Choc, once easily identified more than 200 species of plants — and their uses — from specimens collected in eight 40-meter plots. Lucero herself has been healed from a stubborn fever after drinking a bitter Maya brew made by a local from the bark of a tree.

With modern-day Maya numbering in the millions, their ancestors' ability to adapt to a changing environment speaks for itself. Perhaps the most important message from the Maya is that we are all a part of nature.