Gordon R. Willey Lecture: The Ancient Maya Response to Climate Change: A Cautionary Tale


Thursday, February 27, 2020, 6:00pm


Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford Street, Cambridge

Speaker: Billie L. Turner II, Regents Professor and Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University

Moderator: William L. Fash, Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology; Archaeology Program Director, Harvard University

Ancient Maya civilization—known for its cities, monumental architecture, ceramics, hieroglyphic writing, and advanced understanding of mathematics and astronomy—suffered a major demise between the tenth and eleventh centuries. The causes continue to be investigated and debated. Paleoenvironmental research over the past twenty years has revealed that the demise coincided with a prolonged intensive drought that extended across the region, providing compelling evidence that climate change played a key role in the collapse of the Maya. Billie Turner will examine this evidence and the complex social and environmental conditions—including land use and landscape changes—that affected Maya societies.

B. L. Turner II studies human-environment relationships from prehistory to contemporary sustainability. Focusing on the dynamics between society and land, his research has addressed the ancient Maya, smallholder agriculture in the tropics, tropical deforestation, and sustainability science. Dr. Turner is a member of both the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts of Sciences, and serves as Associate Editor of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He has served on numerous national and international organizations addressing land, climate change, and sustainability. He holds a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a M.A. and B.A. in geography from the University of Texas at Austin.

William Fash worked on archaeological digs in Arizona and in Central Mexico while obtaining his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Illinois (1976). In his first year in graduate school at Harvard University he joined Gordon R. Willey’s archaeological project in Copán, Honduras, Central America in 1977. He and his wife Barbara have been working at Copán ever since, in a series of multi-institutional, multi-national, and interdisciplinary research efforts devoted to illuminating all aspects of ancient Maya lifeways and culture history at one of its most renowned ancient cities. With Barbara Fash, he created the Copan Mosaics Project in 1985, and subsequently spearheaded efforts to conceive, design, and construct the Sculpture Museum in Copán which showcases the magnificent cultural heritage from this site. This museum has proved important to local pride and understanding, and to the cultural patrimony of Honduras and Mesoamerica as a whole. For his efforts he was awarded the Order of José Cecilio del Valle by the President of Honduras in 1994, and selected to succeed his mentor, Gordon Willey, as Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and History at Harvard University in that same year. He served as Chair of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology from 1998 – 2004, and as Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 2004 – 2012. From 2000 – 2003 he conducted archaeological excavations at the Xalla Compound in Teotihuacan, Mexico, with his colleagues Leonardo López Luján and Linda Manzanilla. In March 2017, he was elected as a corresponding fellow of the Academia Mexicana de la Historia. He is the author of Scribes, Warriors, and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya (1991, rev. ed. 2001), History Carved in Stone (1992, with Ricardo Agurcia), Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom (2005, with E. Wyllys Andrews), The Ancient American World (2005, with Mary Lyons), Gordon R. Willey and American Archaeology: Contemporary Perspectives (2007, co-editor with Jeremy Sabloff), and The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery (2009, co-edited with Leonardo López Luján).

Presented in collaboration with Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and Harvard Museum of Natural History