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Class studies Mayan civilization during hikes through Guatemala

Barry McNamara
01/22/2018
Faculty and students from Monmouth College pose at the La Danta pyramid at El Mirador, which they hiked to during their trip to Guatemala to study the economic collapse and resurgence of Mayan civilization.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Two thousand years ago, Mayan cities rivaled any in the world for population and sophistication. By around 900 A.D., most of the cities were gone.

Ten Monmouth College students and two faculty members spent two weeks over Christmas break hiking through Guatemala to study the “Economic Collapse and Resurgence of Mayan Civilization,” which was also the title of a course taught during the final half of the fall semester.

The trip was led by the course’s instructors, political economy and commerce professor Ramses Armendariz and biology professor James Godde.

Ancient Mayan history

Had the Monmouth group walked the same terrain 2,000 years earlier, they would have been on roads that Armendariz said had more than three feet of bedrock underneath them and were, in some cases, as wide as the stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that runs past Monmouth.

Godde said what the Mayans accomplished centuries ago is fairly incredible.

“The most ancient of the cities is Nakbe, which began around 1000 B.C.,” he said. “So there were cities thriving there for about 2,000 years. You compare that to the U.S., which has only been around for 250 years or so.”

The Monmouth group said that a number of factors led to the demise of the Mayan cities.

“The people began to leave the cities, but it’s a common misconception that it was because of one cataclysmic event,” said Armendariz, who teaches a course on environmental economics.

“Part of the problem was that they just didn’t have a steady source of water,” said Godde. “There were tens of thousands of people in these cities, and if they had a poor rainy season, they really felt the effects of that.”

Although the area went through a particularly dry period around 900 A.D., other factors also led to the culture’s downfall.

“It was really a sequence of bad luck and bad planning,” said Godde. “They’d been exploiting the land for hundreds of years, and some of the cities had grown to sizes that were just unsustainable. They didn’t have a good understanding of sustainable development. Gradually, the people began to lose faith in their leaders, who would say, ‘The rain is coming. The rain is coming.’ They were like, ‘’No, this isn’t going to work anymore.’”

Michelle Zelnio ’20 of Bettendorf, Iowa, offered another explanation.

“I learned that the main thing that collapses a group of people is fighting between the groups,” said Zelnio. “The Mayans could have worked through most of their issues by working together. Instead, they turned against each other in a power struggle. That accelerated their issues even more and led to the end of their civilization.”

The impact of study abroad

A veteran of leading off-campus experiences for Monmouth students, Godde observed several Mayan sites last spring during his semester in Mérida, Mexico. Armendariz, who recently experienced the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk in Spain, is also a proponent of study-abroad experiences.

A college donor funded about two-thirds of the trip, and Armendariz said the investment paid off.

“It’s very valuable to keep making trips like this happen,” he said. “I had a student tell me, ‘I want to do more traveling on my own.’ This experience really opened their appetite to travel.”

Zelnio was one of those students.

“This definitely prompted a life of travel for me,” said Zelnio. “I was already planning on studying abroad during my time at Monmouth, and this further excited me for that opportunity.”

Zelnio said she appreciated that the group’s two main hikes allowed her to get off the beaten path, literally.

“This trip gave me the opportunity to see less touristy parts of travel, and I fell in love with the different experience,” she said. “I plan to travel many, many more times in my life, and maybe even live in a different country after graduation due to the experience this trip gave me.”

Chase Cranford ’20 of Wauconda, Ill., said the trip caused him to rethink his professional plans.

“My appetite for study abroad had already been strong before,” said Cranford, who studied in Mérida last spring. “However, this trip has me thinking that I will want to get a job and live in a Spanish-speaking country after graduation.”

“I need to travel more,” said Joel Mota ’18 of Chicago. “I learned so much in two weeks about another country, human history, and my own abilities to think, reflect and appreciate being alive. This was my first trip abroad and there will be more adventures in the future.”

The hikes

The Monmouth group took a three-day, 50-mile hike that ended at the popular site of Tikal, which attracts 200,000 visitors per year. That contrasted nicely with a 67-mile hike to El Mirador, which is much harder to access and only receives 3,000 annual visitors.

“I was extremely nervous about the hikes at first,” said Zelnio. “However, it is not as bad as it sounds. Instead of thinking of the 23-mile hiking day ahead of us, I simply started walking. The key was just to not get ahead of yourself and focus on the moment. The hikes were an amazing time to see smaller Mayan ruins and wildlife. The Mayan cities we saw made all of the blisters and sore muscles worth it.”

“As a distance runner, I’m pretty used to doing things that most people shy away from,” said Kate Saulcy ’18 of Bloomington, Ill. “I had mentally prepared for a challenging journey through the jungle, but this even tested some of my limits. ... Walking back into Carmelita six days after we left, I think we all felt the greatest sense of accomplishment. Seeing the abundance of Mayan ruins that only people who follow the same path that we do get to see was a unique experience.”

Cranford said some of the views on the hike were breathtaking.

“One highlight of the trip for me was getting to see the sunset a few times from the top of Mayan ruins, and also learning from our guide about various edible plants or herbal medicines during our hikes in the jungle,” he said.

“The highlight for me was climbing to the top of unrestored and restored Mayan monuments and getting a view above the jungle which stretched far beyond belief,” said Mota. “There was an overwhelming mix of emotion and thought – to see how far you’ve come, to think how 1,800 years prior a king sat where you desperately gasp for breath after the climb, to turning around and seeing how long of a march the next day was going to be.”

The Monmouth group also met Mayans who still live in the region.

“The Mayans still in Guatemala are very passionate about their ancestry and still carry on many traditions,” said Zelnio.

“This trip provided a life-changing experience for students,” said Armendariz. “They got to see a completely different lifestyle where commodities are hard to come by. But that doesn’t imply it’s less valuable. There was a richness and a beauty to what we saw and experienced.”