The Fall of the Maya Civilization
One of the greatest and most signification mysteries of human civilization is the collapse of the Maya civilization. The significance of this event is amplified given that the Maya achieved unprecedented intellectual, cultural, and technological heights that were unique in the New World during this time (Crist & Paganini 23). Though many theories, both fictional and historical, exist today that attempt to explain this collapse, the true reason for their demise will always remain inaccessible, shrouded in mystery akin to how the immense forests of the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America shroud their desolate cities and ruins (Crist & Paganini 23-24). This paper will focus on the various theories that have been postulated to explain the Classic Maya Collapse. First, it will be important to understand who the Mayans were at the peak of their civilization. Understanding their impact in Mesoamerica will be important to highlight why their collapse is such a mystery. Then, the rise of the Maya civilization will be explored in order to highlight the important events and technological advancements that allowed such an influential civilization to flourish under the thick forest canopy of the Mesoamerica forests. The relationship between the early Maya and their environment will also be explored to emphasize how changes in their ecosystem possibly contributed to their demise. And finally, a synthesis of the various theories of the Maya collapse will be explored, which will take into consideration both the endogenous end exogenous factors whose complex interplay were necessary to ultimately bring down this civilization. The cataclysmic decline of ancient civilizations are of general interest to everyone given that they may hold keys as to what current society may need to look after and avoid in order to achieve prolonged prosperity and to avoid suffering a similar fate.
The Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization “organized into networks of city-states that ranged across the entire Yucatan peninsular region, extending south between the Caribbean Sea and the Usumacinta watershed to the highlands of current El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico” (Turner and Sabloff 13908-13909). The system of government that was in place in these city-states was a theocratic one, where the ruling cast were priests known as Itzas, named after Itzamna, the Maya god of the sky (Browne). The Maya people believed their rulers were connected to the gods and their ancestors, therefore the Itzas, who formed most of the upper class, where in charge all of religious, civic and cultural rituals in society (Armstrong; Browne). The ruling class was also “expected to provide material, spiritual, and ideological security” given that they controlled “vital resources, trade, military power, and advanced knowledge such as literacy, math, astronomy, and engineering” (Turner and Sabloff 13911). The Maya developed a very effective system of agriculture that allowed farmers plenty of time for cultural and civic activities as well as time for the construction buildings, temples, palaces, and pyramids; staples of the Maya civilization (Browne; Crist and Paganini 23). Farmers perfected the practice of swidden, that is, cutting down trees using stone axes and then burning the trees and bushes to make room for the cultivation of maize, beans and squash and to build their great centers (Browne; Crist and Paganini 24; Turner and Sabloff 13909). They also developed a sophisticated drainage network that allowed them irrigate all of their crops rendering them capable of building up food surpluses (Browne; Crist & Paganini 24). The development and harvesting of Maize, a staple crop in the Maya diet, is often attributed as being instrumental in allowing the Maya population to increase exponentially, which allowed the Maya to pursue advanced cultural traits such as writing and pyramid building (Browne; Crist & Paganini 25). The Maya spoke Yucatec, whose legacy can be found today in the 15-20 languages and dialects spoken by many Mexican and Central American people that derived from this ancient language (Browne; Crist & Paganini 24). They also developed a system of writing called hieroglyphics that used pictures and symbols and developed a complex numerical system that included the knowledge of the concept of “zero” (Ancient History; Browne). The development of writing also allowed the Maya to keep historical records on large stone blocks called stelae, which often were inscribed with important events in the lives of their leaders at that time (Browne). Furthermore, the Maya were also capable of producing quality paintings, pottery, murals, and sculptures (Browne). It is also very important to emphasize that the Maya were a polytheistic civilization, meaning that they worshipped many gods and goddesses, the most important being Itzamna, as previously mentioned, and the also praised the gods for the four most powerful forces that impacted the “agricultural world: rain, thunder, lighting, hail” (Browne). Though sacrifices were not central to the Maya religion, they were important during periods of drought, where the offered noble women in exchange for rain to help their maize crops (Browne). The Maya also developed a calendar and were very adept at tracking the movement of celestial bodies in order to predict the mood of the gods and changes in the agricultural season (Browne). Given the vast richness in culture, technology, and intellect that persisted in this civilization, it is very easy to see why scholars would be fascinated to unravel the mysteries of the past and decipher what went wrong with this civilization. However, in order to understand the collapse of the Maya, it is important to understand where they came from and how they rose to prominence in the region.
Knowledge of the ancient Maya history is very limited and their exact origin is a mystery (McGill). However, some scholars speculate that some time in the Pre-Archaic Period, somewhere between 9000-7000 BCE, “a nomadic people collectively called Clovis lived in the area from present-day state of Oregon to Central America” and there is some evidence of Clovis presence in Maya territory (McGill). In the Archaic Period, from 7000 until 2000 BCE, the glaciers began to recede in North America and these hunter-gatherer societies, consisting of hunters, fishermen, and horticulturalists, continued to wander in search for food in the area (Crist and Paganini 24; McGill). It is during this time when they encounter maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers, which become staples of the diet (McGill). From 2,000 BCE – 250 CE, a period of time known as the Pre-classic Period, “village farming made possible the intensive settlement of the” Central Maya Lowlands (Crist and Paganini 24; McGill). These settlements then evolved into villages and cities. Such growth was possible due to improvised agricultural habits, such as the development of the slash-and-burn method of preparing agricultural plots, as previously described, and trading with neighboring cultures. The success the Maya settlers found in farming- each farmer could produce enough food to support 10-12 people- allowed them to develop task specialization among its citizens, which allowed them to learn weaving and pottery and facilitated the development of social classes within society (Crist and Paganini 25; McGill). It is important to remember that the Maya did not develop in isolation and were actually influenced by civilizations nearby such as the Olmec, who were reaching the height of their civilization around 800 BCE – 300BCE in the Middle Pre-classic Period, whose influence on the Maya civilization included the adoption of the “calendar, headdresses, and the concept of taking enemies prisoners and degrading them in front of villagers” as well as the concept of building monumental art (Crist and Paganini 25; McGill). In the Late Pre-classic Period, lasting from 300BCE until 240 CE, the Maya developed writing, large-scale public works, temple and pyramid building, polychrome pottery, and they began to record their history (Crist and Paganini 25; McGill). This period also coincides with the decline of the Olmec civilization and the raise of the Teotihuacan culture, another civilization that also impacted the development of the Maya (McGill). It is during this time that most Maya villages developed into cities and that social stratification became much more defined than before where a small group of elite noblemen controlled the different regions (McGill).
During the span of six centuries, from 250 – 900 CE, known as the Classic Period, “the Maya from northern Yucatan to the Pacific Coast reached intellectual and artistic heights unique in the New World at the time” (Crist and Paganini 25; McGill). This era began when the Maya started using the Long Count Calendar to date events celebrated and inscribed on stelae and other monuments (McGill). In the Early Classic period, from 250 – 475 CE, the main city-states were Chichen Itza in the north end of the Yucatan Peninsula, Tikal in the central mainland, and Copan in the highlands of the south (McGill). The tremendous development by the Mata civilization was based on an agricultural economy that was supplemented by fishing, hunting, and a highly developed commercial trade route, particularly influenced by the Teotihuacan civilization (Crist and Paganini 25; McGill). The civilization continued to advance in the Middle Classical Period from 475-681 CE, which is characterized by increased construction of temples, pyramids, courts for ball games, and palaces (McGill). Of note is a period from 550-600 CE commonly known as the Maya “cultural hiatus” (Armstrong; McGill; Turner and Sabloff 13909). The civilization experienced a sudden decline, “indicated by the abrupt end of production of monumental art”, abandonment in some areas, and social upheaval (Armstrong; McGill). Some historians believed this “hiatus” was due to the downfall of the Teotihuacan civilization. However, a current hypothesis posits that this decline was due to ecological and environmental problems (McGill). The similarities between the Maya Collapse and this “cultural hiatus” will be explored later in the essay. The Maya were capable of recovering from this “cultural hiatus” by 600 CE, a period once again marked by reinvigorated architecture, abundance in food, and increased merchant activity with other cultures in the vicinity, factors which rendered the civilization capable of growing even more (McGill). Between 681 – 900 CE, known as the Late Classical Period, the Maya once again experience a rapid decline in population throughout the southern highlands and central lowlands, a period scholars regard as the fall of the Classic Maya civilization (Armstrong; Crist and Paganini 26; McGill; Turner and Sabloff 13908). The Maya simply disappeared from the Central area; many cities were simply deserted by its citizens, the population seemingly fading into oblivion (Armstrong; Crist and Paganini 26; McGill; Turner and Sabloff 13908). This is the period of time that has caused great speculation among laymen and scholars alike, prompting various theories as to why the Maya civilization declined so abruptly. However, it is important to note that the northern region of Yucatan continued to thrive, particularly Chichen Itza, even after this collapse. However, these northern cities failed to live up to the splendor of the Classical Maya period and, even though its history is rich, interesting, and spans well into the Spanish conquest of the Maya regions in 1541 CE, this paper will focus on the theories that attempt to explain the fall of the Classical Maya civilization (McGill).
What caused the massive Maya exodus from the Central Maya Lowlands (CML) at the end of the Classical Period? There are various theories that attempt to explain this rapid collapse. Even though there isn’t one universally accepted theory, the most prominent one at the moment is the drought theory. However, it is important to understand additional theories that account for the Classical Maya collapse, given that a complex interplay of social, ecological, and environmental factors ultimately brought down this empire. One of the earliest theories that addressed his collapse was the foreign invasion theory (Ancient History). Around 750 CE, the Teotihuacan civilization collapsed, which forced many Teotihuacan soldiers to migrate into Maya territories to work as mercenaries (Ancient History). This, in turn, forced some Maya cities to adopt the warfare tactics of these mercenaries, which resulted in more savage and bloody methods of warfare that contrasted the tepid Maya fighting style (Ancient History). This forced people living in these cities to flee the urban centers and disperse the society. This theory was quickly abandoned given that there is no strong evidence for Teotihuacan influenced invasion of the Maya lowlands. Further, while it is the case that the Toltecs invaded the northern Maya city of Chichen Itza in the Post–Classic period, from 900 – 1521 CE, which resulted in hybridization of Toltec and Maya cultures in the region, no military event can really account for such a complex collapse across the entire region (Ancient History; Crist and Paganini 26; McGill).
Another theory scholars have postulated is that overpopulation in the Maya civilization led to crop failure (Armostrong; Crist ; Paganini 27; McGill). During this time, there was increased demand for agricultural produce, which forced farmers to reduce their fallow periods, increased deforestation through slash-and-burn methods, and overreliance in maize which left crops vulnerable to pests which ultimately resulted in crop failure (Armstrong; Crist and Paganini 27; Turner and Sabloff 13910). These events would have resulted in a widespread famine that occurred in a very short period of time, which would have caused the death of thousand and the rapid dispersal of the surviving population of the Central Maya Lowlands (Crist and Paganini 28). This theory relies on the notion that soil erosion was the ultimate cause of the civilization’s downfall. However, it is important to understand that the Maya had techniques in place that reduced soil erosion and loss of soil nutrient through cultivation particularly in the Early Classic Period (Turner and Sabloff 13910). Environmental considerations to explain the collapse of the Central Maya Lowlands must be tempered by recognizing that the Maya occupied this area for over 2,000 years and had developed sophisticated understanding of this environment (Turner and Sabloff 13910). It is true that this period of time is characterized by deterioration of the land; overworking it for agriculture, fuel, monument erection, and deforestation were common practice in order to meet the demands during this time (Armstrong). However, “the rapidity of the civilization’s fall must have been initiated by an external factor that left the Mata people in a scattered and chaotic state, resulting in their eventual dissolution (Armstrong).
The drought theory, which explains the rapid collapse of the Maya empire, is not a new concept, but it is one that has gained momentum and acceptability in recent times (Armstrong; Crist and Paganini 29; Ness; Turner and Sabloff 13908). This theory postulates that the Maya civilization suffered a series of droughts during the Classic Maya period, which included a mega-drought that lasted from 800 CE until 1000 CE and had a “catastrophic impact on the political stability, economic success, and societal prosperity of many of the great Maya cities” (Armstrong; Ness; Turner and Sabloff 13908). According to sediment analysis of various sites around the Central Maya Lowlands, there were certain periods of Maya growth that coincided with increased precipitation in the area that provided conditions that “allowed the Maya to expand and settle in the region” (Armstrong). However, there were also more arid periods of droughts which coincide with times under which the Maya civilization experienced a decline in population, one of which coincides with the Maya “cultural hiatus” that lasted from 525/536 until 590/681 and another drought that began in 862 and ultimately resulted in the Maya collapse (Armstrong; Turner and Sabloff 13909). While, certainly, additional factors must be considered when discussing the fall of the Classical Maya civilization, it is very plausible that these periods of drought served as a catalyst that caused “economic, political, social, and religious complications for the Maya, leading to their ultimate exhaustion (Armstrong). It is also important to understand that the Maya civilization expanded over a large territory and climate variability existed in the different regions. Recent studies show that human-environment relationships are very complex and a proper equilibrium is needed for prolonged sustainability (Turner and Sabloff 13908). Deforestation was a very common practice in the Central Mata Lowlands and, even though soil erosion and crop failure may paint an incomplete picture for the demise of the Classical Maya civilization, there is growing evidence that “the scale of modern forest removal reduces local to regional precipitation”. In other words, deforestation, either by hurricanes, climate variability, or persistent swidden, leads to increased surface temperatures and reduces the amount of rainfall in the region (Turner and Sabloff 13909). Further, deforestation also reduces the amount of phosphorus, a nutrient necessary for vegetation, available in the soil because only the forest canopy can capture it from the environment to make it readily available (Turner and Sabloff 13911). To add to the complexity of this issue, the reduction in precipitation in the region, coupled with the reduction of phosphorus in the soil and canopy regrowth, also coincided with a shift in the economy of trade that favored maritime routes near the coasts rather than the inland transportation of resources (Turner and Sabloff 13911). This complex interplay of social and environmental stressors ultimately created the perfect storm that led to the cultural collapse of the Maya civilization and population (Armstrong; Turner and Sabloff 13911).
A theory that attempts to describe the downfall of the Classical Maya civilization needs to consider both the endogenous and exogenous factors that existed in the Central Maya Lowlands during this era (Turner and Sabloff 13912). During the end of the Classical Period, power and authority rested in the hands of a small number of elites in the various Maya cities, all of which presented income and resourced inequality (Armstrong ; Turner and Sabloff 13911). The rulers were the gatekeepers of wealth and knowledge in the region; the social contract that existed between the elites and the rest of the citizens demanded that the elite ruling class “provide material, spiritual, and ideological security” to the masses, all of which were difficult to achieve due to the exogenous climatic factors present that were driven by poor human-environment interactions (Armstrong; Turner and Sabloff 13911). Further, the shift in the economy of trade from the Central Maya Lowlands to the coastlines further reduced the economic power and authority of the city-states, which resulted in the weaning power and influence of the ruling elite (Armstrong; Turner and Sabloff 13911). By the end of the Late Classical Period, the ruling elite were no longer able to support and deliver on their social promises, which included forest and resource management, water capture and retention, sustained monument building, and financing of military conflicts (Armstrong; Turner and Sabloff 13911). This complex interplay of human-environment interactions ultimately forced the peasants, artisans, craftsmen, and others to abandon their homes and cities to find better economic opportunities elsewhere, resulting in significant depopulation and city abandonment and not large-scale death and famine as it was previously postulated by certain scholars (Turner and Sabloff 13911). The lessons of the Classical Maya collapse should not be overlooked. They ought to be studied and understood in order to prevent current civilizations from suffering a similar fate. “Humans are not separate from the natural world” and sustained detrimental strain of the environment has substantial impact in our ecosystem that will lead to our civilization’s collapse if it is not corrected (Armstrong).
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