A World Pushed Apart
In the beginning there was plenty of farmland and only a moderate number of people to support. But slowly the surrounding green sea of maize and forest gave way to a city of white and red plazas—with fine structures of stone, wood and thatch—all jostling for position. Soon, social standing and proximity to the dynamic pulse of the city became more important to these exuberant people than their own food production. Meter by meter, over the centuries, they usurped their richest cropland, constructing their lineage compounds on acreage that used to be fields, gradually forcing the farmers up into the margins of the valley.
Over generations, expanding residential zones covered the best agricultural lands, forcing farmers into the foothills and then onto the mountain slopes. There they were forced to clear more and more forest to produce maize fields. Clearing, in turn, caused erosion. Shorter fallow periods were depleting the usable soils at an even faster rate, just when the kingdom was required to feed the largest population in its history.
The cutting down of the forest also affected climate and rainfall, making it yet more difficult for people to sustain themselves. With an insufficient food supply came malnutrition and its resultant chronic diseases, rampant conditions that affected the nobility as well as the common people. The quality of life, which was never very good in the preindustrial cities of the ancient world, fast deteriorated toward the unbearable.
A world fallen apart: There were too many people, there was too much of the forest gone, too little rain, and too much death.
Within two centuries, 90 percent of the population in the Copan Valley system was gone. They left a land so ravaged that only in this last century have people returned to build the population back to the levels it knew. Today, the people of Copan destroy their forests once more.
Schele and Freidel, A Forest of Kings (mod.)