February 2, 2018 – The New York Times
Of the nearly 1,000 registered archaeological sites scattered across the southeast Mexican state of Campeche, Xcalumkín is far from the most impressive. Just over 40 miles northeast of the state capital (also called Campeche), it looks, at first glance, like little more than a few half-excavated hillsides. On the stifling May morning that I visited, the scrubby forest was dry and radioactively bright, baked under a sky the color of a pilot flame. It didn’t take long for this abstraction of a city to come to life. Hills revealed themselves as pyramids. Fields became plazas. A cave opening suddenly in the ground — a tree, like an umbilical cord, growing from its center — became a reservoir.
I had come out that morning with Rubí Peniche Lozano, who runs a restaurant called Capuchino in the historic center of Campeche, an extravagantly pretty town on the west of the Yucatán Peninsula. She’d brought along her sister, Ada, a local teacher, and Lirio Suarez Améndola, a former delegate for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or I.N.A.H.
Ms. Suarez walked us through the site, pointing out the hidden mouths of cisterns and offering I.N.A.H.’s best guesses as to what each structure might have been. Xcalumkín, she told us, had likely existed since the beginning of the millennium but, like most settlements in this part of the peninsula, would have flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries, part of a vast network of city-states and vassal towns that made up the classical Maya world. By 950 A.D., that world had all but disappeared.
“To make the stucco they used to cover the buildings and pave the roads, they needed charcoal, so imagine how many trees they needed,” she said as we looked down into the reservoir that was now a cave. “They emptied their water sources, cut down all their trees. The temperature raised two degrees. They changed the climate completely.” She sounded almost exasperated. “Lots of people look at the Maya very romantically, that they lived with nature and all that, but it’s not true. They were just like us: human beings.”
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