What Happened to the Maya?
The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization that was located in Central America. The beginnings of the Maya civilization have been dated to the 2 nd millennium BC. Around the 9 th century AD, however, the Maya civilization went into decline.
More precisely, however, it was the Maya cities of the southern lowlands that were abandoned one by one. Whilst the exact reason for the mysterious decline of the Maya is still unclear, several competing theories have been developed by scholars based on the available archaeological evidence.
The History of the Maya
It may be pointed out that the word ‘Maya’ is a modern collective term not used by the indigenous populations themselves. Unlike other indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were concentrated in one geographical area, which corresponds to the modern area of southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize, as well as the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
Maya wooden handcrafted masks in a traditional Mexican market. (Jose Ignacio Soto / Adobe stock)
This area, however, may be divided into three sub-regions, each with its own environmental and cultural differences. These are the northern Maya lowlands, in the Yucatan Peninsula, the southern Maya lowlands, in northern Guatemala and the adjacent parts of Mexico, Belize, and western Honduras, and the southern Maya highlands, in southern Guatemala.
The Maya were never a unified civilization. Instead, in each of the three regions mentioned before, the Maya organized themselves into small states that were ruled by kings. It seems that each of these states was centered on a city, which would effectively make them city-states.
The absence of a unified Maya civilization is also reflected in their language. It has been pointed out that the earliest Maya used a common language. By the Pre-Classic period, however, this single language had experienced a diversification amongst the various Maya peoples. Today, there are about 70 different Mayan languages, spoken by around 5 million people.
A Maya mask / stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Early Classic period on show in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The earliest Maya settlements have been dated to around 1800 BC. This marks the beginning of the Pre-Classic period, which lasted until around 250 BC. These early Maya settlements relied on agriculture and crops, such as corn (maize), beans, squash, and cassava (manioc) were cultivated.
As time went by, the Maya began building ceremonial centers. By 250 AD, these centers had developed into cities with temples, pyramids, palaces, ball courts and plazas. The emergence of such cities is considered to be the beginning of the Classic period. This is regarded to be the peak of the Maya civilization. During the Classic period, which lasted until around 900 AD, the Maya established around 40 cities throughout Central America.
The Maya ball game court (juego de pelota) at Chichén Itzá - Yucatan, Mexico. (diegograndi / Adobe stock)
The Marveling Maya City of Tikal
One of the most impressive sites of this period is Tikal. The site is located in the northern part of the Petén region, Guatemala, and is considered to be part of the southern Maya lowlands. Tikal was one of the largest urban centers of the Maya civilization during the Classic period, as well as one of the largest cities in the Americas at that time.
The Maya Tikal ruins in Guatemala. (Simon Dannhauer / Adobe stock)
The city originated as a small village during the Middle Pre-Classic period, around 800 BC. By the Late Pre-Classic period, however, Tikal had grown into a significant ceremonial center. Tikal maintained its importance during the Classic period, and reached its peak during the last centuries of the period, known also as the Late Classic period. It has been speculated that during this period, Tikal had extended its hegemony over much of the southern Maya lowlands.
In addition, between 600 and 800 AD, Tikal enjoyed a flourish in architecture and in the arts. This is reflected in the building of monumental structures, including pyramids, palaces, and plazas, as well as monumental sculptures and vase paintings. Moreover, the sophistication of Tikal is also evident in the appearance of Maya hieroglyphic writing and complex systems of time-counting.
What Happened to the Maya? Decline and Abandonment
Tikal however, was not the only Maya site that prospered during the Classic period. Other major sites from this period include Palenque, Calakmul, and Copán. Like Tikal, these sites were located in the southern Maya lowlands. These southern lowland urban centers went into decline around the 10 th century, and were abandoned shortly after.
The ancient Maya ruins of Palenque in Mexico. (Marine / Adobe stock)
The decline and abandonment of these cities is reflected in the archaeological record by the cessation of monumental inscriptions, and the termination of large-scale construction projects. At Tikal, for instance, the site’s last dated stela is placed at 889 AD.
Whilst at Copán, there is an incomplete monument dubbed by archaeologists as ‘Altar L’. This altar was commissioned by the city’s last ruler, Ukit Took, but was never completed, as three of its four sides have been left bare. The collapse of the Maya civilization at the end of the Classic period is a major question that has long puzzled archaeologists. A number of theories have been put forward to explain this mystery.
Maya ruins in the city of Copán, Honduras. (Judd Irish Bradley / Adobe stock)
Did Climate Change Cause the Demise of Maya?
At present, the most popular theory used to explain what happened to the Maya and in particular, the decline and fall of the Maya civilization is that of climate change. In particular, archaeologists have suggested that it was severe droughts that caused the collapse of the Maya. This theory gained popularity during the 1990s, when the first paleoclimate records of Central America were pieced together.
The climate records of a region may be obtained through speleotherms (known also as cave formations), in particular stalagmites. These are rocky spires on cave floors that are formed by the dripping of water and minerals (often calcareous in nature) from above. In theory, stalagmites grow faster during wetter years, and conversely, slower during drier ones. This is visible in the cross-section of a stalagmite, where a thicker ring indicates faster growth, and vice versa.
A stalagmite taken from the Yok Balum cave in Belize helped researchers determine amounts of rainfall during various periods of the Maya civilization. This pointed towards climate change problems, which is now the most popular explanation for what happened to the Maya. (Douglas Kennett / Penn State University)
In more recent times, oxygen isotope ratio has been used as a means to estimate the amount of annual rainfall. For the purpose of paleoclimate research, there are two important types of oxygen isotopes – heavy and light. Water molecules containing the lighter isotope are more likely to evaporate, and fall as precipitation. Therefore, layers of the stalagmite containing higher levels of light isotope indicate higher rainfalls.
Alternatively, paleoclimate records may be obtained from sediment cores, a method commonly used by climate scientists to determine climatic conditions of the past. This type of analysis has been recently applied to the Maya civilization. As an example, a paper published in 2018 reports the findings made from the analysis of sediment from under Lake Chichancanab on the Yucatan Peninsula.
From their analysis, the researchers found that between 800 and 1000 AD, annual precipitation fell by around 50% on average. In addition, during peak drought conditions, this decrease was as high as 70%. By contrast, at the beginning of the Classic period, the area experienced conditions that were wetter than the previous thousand years, according to data obtained from Belizean stalagmites.
Deforestation that Led to Drought and Unrest
Although the data shows that the southern Maya lowlands suffered severe droughts towards the end of the Classic period, it does not tell us how this change in the climate happened. The blame has been placed on the Maya themselves. Widespread deforestation has been identified as contributing towards the area’s changing climate. Wood was a natural resource in high demand amongst the Maya cities, as a it was used to produce lime plaster through the heating of limestone.
In order to make 1m 2 (3ft) of this material, 20 trees had to be chopped down, and turned into firewood. The widespread deforestation is evident in the absence of lime plaster on monuments towards the end of the Classic period. At Copán, for instance, the 6 th century Rosalila Temple is believed to be the last monument in the city to be decorated with stucco. Deforestation would have also been carried out to clear land for agricultural purposes, which was necessary considering the growing population of the cities.
The life-size replica of Rosalila Temple at the Copán site museum, Honduras. (Talk2winik / Public Domain)
As a consequence of deforestation, the flow of moisture from the ground would be reduced, the natural rain cycle is disrupted, and precipitation is reduced. The reduction in precipitation made it difficult for the Maya cities to grow enough food, and to store enough water in their reservoirs for the dry season.
Lack of food and water would have created a discontented population, which may have turned on their elite. In some Maya cities, for instance, mass graves were found, in which skeletons with jade inlays in their teeth were unearthed. This practice was reserved for the Maya elite, and may be a sign that the commoners took their frustration out on the elites by murdering them.
This Maya skull with jade inlays in the teeth is on display at the Jade Museum in Antigua, Guatemala. (David Dennis / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Intensification in Warfare
Alternatively, these graves have been interpreted as a sign that the Late Classic period saw an intensification in warfare, which is another theory used to explain the collapse of the Maya civilization. Prior to the Late Classic period, Maya warfare was normally ritualistic, limited in scope, and had strict rules of engagement. The main goal of warfare was the capture of elites for ransom and tribute.
In addition, the participation of non-combatants was minimal. During the Late Classic period, however, there is evidence that civilians as well as elites were slaughtered, and cities destroyed. This has led to the theory that increased warfare amongst the Maya resulted in their downfall. In recent times, however, archaeologists have found evidence that such violence occurred even before the Late Classic period, calling into question warfare as a major factor leading to the demise of the Maya.
Not Just One Factor
It has been highlighted that what happened to the Maya and the fall of the civilization were unlikely caused by a single factor. Although the climate change / droughts theory is a favorite explanation for the demise of the Maya, it has been pointed out that droughts were not entirely new to them. Although the climate was relatively stable prior to the Late Classic period, there were periods of reduced rainfall even then.
The Maya simply made adaptations to deal with these harsher periods. For instance, reservoirs and intricate drainage were developed to capture and store water, whilst elaborate terrace and irrigation networks were built to protect against soil runoff and nutrient depletion. The severe droughts towards the end of the Classic period, however, could have exacerbated other problems, such as war, civil unrest, starvation, and disease. A combination of problems may have brought the Maya civilization down.
Was the Classic Period the End?
Whilst the end of the Classic period is often presented as the end or collapse of the Maya civilization, this is not entirely true. The Maya did not disappear from the face of the Earth. Today, for instance, there are over 6 million Maya living in Central America. Although the cities of the southern Maya lowlands were abandoned at the end of the Classic period, this did not happen in other parts of the Maya world.
In fact, the period from around 900 AD till the arrival of the Spanish during the 16 th century is referred to as the Post-Classic period. During this time, the Maya continued to live in other parts of Mesoamerica. The Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, i.e. the northern lowlands, for instance, continued to thrive after the demise of their brethren in the southern lowlands. One of the best examples of this is the site of Chichén Itzá, located on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Maya pyramids (El Castillo center) at the site of Chichén Itzá. (IRStone / Adobe stock)
Chichén Itzá was established around the 6 th century AD, and soon became an important center of political and economic activity in the region. By the 9 th century AD, the rulers of Chichén Itzá could claim hegemony over much of central and northern Yucatan Peninsula.
In the centuries that followed, Chichén Itzá continued to prosper. Around the middle of the 13 th century, however, much of the political and economic activities at Chichén Itzá had shifted to a rival city, Mayapan. Although Chichén Itzá had lost its prominence, it continued to exist, and fell to the Spanish when they arrived in 1526.
- Remembering the Future: How Ancient Maya Agronomists Changed the Modern World
- The Maya’s Mystifying Collapse – Has the Truth Finally Been Uncovered?
- New Scientific Proof Emerges for the Cause of the Downfall of the Maya Civilization
Unsolved Puzzle with Lessons for the Future
The collapse of the Maya civilization, or more specifically, the Maya of the southern lowlands, is a question that continues to puzzle scholars today. Data obtained from geological sources have shown that the Maya of that region were experiencing severe droughts at the end of the Classic period.
As this climate change was caused by widespread deforestation, the fall of the Maya may be read as a warning against climate change caused by human activity. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that there were other factors involved in the collapse of the Maya, and that this demise only affected a part of the civilization, i.e. the Maya of the southern lowlands.
Top image: What happened to the Maya? This mysterious civilization dominated parts of Central America for over a 1000 years, but then, seemingly fell quite dramatically. Source: PeekCC / Adobe stock
By Wu Mingren
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