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Honduras Mayan city ruins in Copan. The picture presents detail of decorating walls of the temple.

The Maya’s Mystifying Collapse – Has the Truth Finally Been Uncovered?

Did the longstanding mystery of what caused the downfall of the Maya - of one of the ancient world's great civilizations – just get solved?

Nothing is mightier than an empire at its peak. Great civilizations, awash in traditions, culture, knowledge, technology, riches and the raw power to make global changes have altered history and shaped the face of the earth throughout time. So how do these epic societies crumble so fantastically?

When it comes to the Maya of Mesoamerica, it’s still a puzzle. They were so mighty that we marvel at their historical footprint today. So what strange circumstances ended with the downfall of the Maya civilization?

1000-year-old Mystery

The Classic Period (250 – 900 AD) was high times for the powerful and advanced Maya empire. Encompassing what is now southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador, the Maya held the throne. As with many civilizations, politics and intrigue were cut-throat, conflict was common, and city-states and rival kingdoms feuded for control of the region.

Classic period sculpture showing sajal Aj Chak Maax presenting captives before ruler Itzamnaaj B'alam III of Yaxchilan.

Classic period sculpture showing sajal Aj Chak Maax presenting captives before ruler Itzamnaaj B'alam III of Yaxchilan. ( Public Domain )

But that didn’t slow the creation of impressive city structures, monumental architecture, advanced astronomical understanding and calendars, glorious art and textiles , developments in agriculture, and sophisticated methods of food production .

They devised the only known system of writing in Mesoamerica and recorded their history and lives and gods; they inscribed deftly in stone and wrote on paper, forming richly-illustrated codices which have survived to this day.

But then it all went wrong.

By 900 AD records became spotty, but it was clear that dynasties were ending, cities were being abandoned, and there was a shift of activity out of the major centers. Since the 19th century, scholars and experts have debated what might have happened to cause this dramatic fall.

Was it too much warring? Famine or plague? A giant, erupting volcano? Had their renowned thirst for sacrificial blood and power over rivals set them on a course for destruction?

Detail of carving at Yaxchilan.

Detail of carving at Yaxchilan. (ProtoplasmaKid/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Answers in the Stones

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Florida put forth in a recent study in the journal Science what may be part of the solution to this thousand-year-old question.

Based on measurements of water trapped in the rock at Lake Chichancanab in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya were based, they have determined that the annual precipitation amounts lowered, decreasing “between 41% and 54% during the period of the Maya civilization’s collapse, with periods of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions, and that relative humidity declined by 2% to 7% compared to today.”

The team analyzed isotopes trapped in the crystal structure of gypsum rock to determine the changes in rainfall and relative humidity during the collapse timeframe.  Nick Evans, the study’s first author and PhD student in Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences said, “This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself.”

With reduced rainfall, drought was very likely. And it’s difficult to maintain a civilization when there’s limited water – and thus no food or means of long-term survival. 

According to ScienceDaily.com, the team, using a new method to measure the water locked within gypsum at the lake, built a complete model of hydrological conditions there during the Classic Maya civilization. These findings line up with evidence from the 1990s; climate records that were pieced together at the pertinent time and place which correlate with an extended period of drought.

Professor David Hodell, senior author of the study and director of Cambridge's Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research, with these gypsum-water results, has provided the first physical evidence of an association between the period of drought at Lake Chichancanab and the collapse of the Maya civilization.

So rather than politicking that got out of hand, or a devastating regional war, or even punishments handed down by the gods via a devastating earthquake or volcano, could it be more likely that an extended drought brought on the collapse of one of the most dominant indigenous societies of Mesoamerica?

Maximum extent of the Maya civilization.

Maximum extent of the Maya civilization. (Simon Burchell/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

While their famous limestone cities were left behind, and their long dynasties were at an end, the Maya people did not disappear. Instead, they are believed to have fled to unaffected areas, so that when the Spanish first arrived in 1511 they were met with established, wealthy coastal cities and thriving marketplaces.

More Pieces of the Puzzle

Retired professor and Maya researcher, Leonide Martin is author of the ‘Mists of Palenque’ series with The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K'inuuw Mat of Palenque coming in 2018.

Martin challenges the idea that the drought theory closes the case on the fall of the Maya civilization, arguing that there remains “no single reason why the Mayas abandoned their cities during the 9th-10th centuries AD. Various factors affected different Maya regions, some declining rapidly while others lingered over centuries.

“Factors associated with the collapse include overpopulation, competition for resources, ideological decline with failure of the kingship system, drought and environmental degradation; all leading to malnutrition, disease, lowered birthrate, social disintegration. Warfare and sudden destruction only occurred in a few cities,” Martin told Ancient Origins.

The ancient fate of the Maya, while puzzling, was not the same across the board. Through her research, Martin has found that the circumstances of each city are a case-study in themselves. She notes that the best studied is Copan in Honduras , where “the royal dynasty disappeared around 800-822 AD, but population stayed relatively high for another century, followed by a long slow decline. The major factors were dense population concentrated in a small area, declining crop production in an overused valley, and denuded hillsides causing silt buildup and soil deterioration.”

Possible howler monkey god at the World Heritage Site of Copan, Honduras

Possible howler monkey god at the World Heritage Site of Copan, Honduras (Adalberto Hernandez Vega/ CC BY 2.0 )

Interestingly, evidence of serious, prolonged drought has not been found in Copan, writes Martin.

“The city lacks signs of violent destruction or environmental catastrophe such as volcanic eruption. As living conditions deteriorated and crops declined, an ideological crisis developed. Maya rulers promoted themselves as guarantors of harmony in the cosmos and well-being for their people. Commoners and lesser nobles were willing to support ruling elites with labor and tribute as long as they kept this covenant. When kings could no longer hold up their part of the bargain, discord led to more competition among royalty and elite nobles, with seeking scapegoats and undermining rulers. Mayas continued living in Copan as late as 1300 AD, though in much smaller numbers.

Pyramid Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

Pyramid Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. ( Public Domain )

Martin considers Palenque in south Chiapas as another case study. For Palenque, “overpopulation and outstripping agricultural capacity were keys. Population rose sharply around 600 AD and competition for building sites and food increased. More hostilities and raids against neighboring cities were likely for acquiring resources.” She believes no ultimate disaster struck; rather, “as kings no longer maintained balance in the cosmos, common people began leaving and the elite could no longer sustain their lifestyle.”

Jade funerary mask and ornamentation of king K'inich Janaab' Pakal.

Jade funerary mask and ornamentation of king K'inich Janaab' Pakal. (Wolfgang Sauber/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The scientific finds are very interesting, and while drought may not on its own explain the collapse of the entire Maya empire, researchers will continue to explore the ancient sites to glean some explanation through the artifacts and stories left behind. We may never know what truly happened, but this enduring mystery is as compelling and profound as the ancient Maya culture itself.

Top image: Honduras Mayan city ruins in Copan. The picture presents detail of decorating walls of the temple. (BigStockPhoto)

By Liz Leafloor

References

David L. Webster, 2002. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse. Thames & Hudson; 1st edition

Leonide Martin. The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K'inuuw Mat of Palenque. Made for Success Publishing, coming 2018. Mists of Palenque Series Available at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B013USZVAC/ref=series_rw_dp_sw

National Geographic, 2018. Ancient Maya 101. [Online] Available at: https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/101-videos/ancient-maya-101

Staff, 2009. Maya. History.com [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/maya

University of Cambridge. "Severity of drought during the Maya collapse." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 August 2018. [Online] Available at: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180802141627.htm

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