Professor speaks on the collapse of ancient civilizations

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Norman Yoffee, professor emerius from the University of Michigan, spoke to BYU students on Friday about the role religion can play in the collapse of ancient civilizations and history’s importance today.

He began by talking about the collapse of Easter Island. There are two conflicting opinions on the subject, according to Yoffee. One is that Europeans brought disease to Easter Island; another theory is ecocide — deforestation. Easter Island was once covered in palm trees, now it is a barren wasteland. The Islanders cut down too many trees to use as rollers for the building of their religious idols, the famous Easter Island heads. This is an example of how religion could indirectly cause the collapse of a civilization.

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Professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, Norman Yoffee, speaks in the Harold B. Lee Library Auditorium Friday afternoon.
Next Yoffee spoke about the Mayas, the last society to be conquered by the Spanish. Some Mayans are still fighting governments in their areas.

“This society didn’t collapse willingly,” Yoffee said.

Yoffee gave some additional causes of the collapse of the Mayan civilization: droughts, increased volcanic activity and an “over-centralized, expensive religion.”

Yoffee also spoke of Chaco Canyon, a place where people made a pilgrimage to worship.

“[It was] the Vatican of the American Southwest,” Yoffee said.

Their collapse can be blamed not only on the decade long drought, but on a failure of the Chaco belief system. As more people were converted to Christianity, the Chaco belief system was abandoned. Consequently, so was Chaco Canyon.

Mesopotamia is Yoffee’s specialty. In early Mesopotamian culture, there was a sharing of power.

“[Society was governed by] assemblies and committees of big men and small men,” Yoffee said.

The collapse of Mesopotamia came from a military coup. Power did not properly change hands and society collapsed.

“[The collapse of Mesopotamia] is a story of the ironies of political success,” Yoffee said.

Finally, Yoffee said that history plays an important role in determining the future.

“The past is not dead,” Yoffee said. “The present is tied to relationships of the past. We can change the present in light of the past. The main difference between ancient and modern societies is that they could not destroy the environment as completely as we could.”

Yoffee retired from the University of Michigan Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies in 2011. He is now an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of New Mexico. He is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

Yoffee has written two books, many articles and is working on a volume for Campbridge World History. His long term goal is to write a “biography” of the city of Kish.

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