The fall of the Mayan Empire may be one of the biggest mysteries to emerge from the Yucatan peninsula. While the reason for its collapse has long stumped archeologists, a new team of researchers thinks they might finally know what happened.
Pulling Back The Jungle
Anyone who’s ever traveled to Guatemala, Southern Mexico, or Belize will likely have seen the ancient ruins peering up at them through the greenery. They often fail to consider why the ruins were abandoned in the first place, but answers are beginning to surface.
Sprouting From Trees
Like most great civilizations, the Maya didn’t spring up in the lowlands overnight. Their roots stretch back to before 2000 BC, where the first Mayan tribes began practicing agriculture. Like the great civilizations of the Middle East, their prosperity was entirely tied to the adoption of farming, which freed up labor and resources in order to raise up a class of civic organizers. This period, known as the Archaic period, formed the basis of the first Mayan Empire.
Layered On The Dirt
The disappearance of the Mayan Empire is all the more mysterious because it happened not once, but twice. The earliest civilization that took root during the heart of antiquity prospered for hundreds upon hundreds of years, with innovations that rivaled those of Egypt. Unlike the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, however, the Mayans grew their population on the back of corn, beans, squash, and chiles, rather than wheat. Even so, they began building the first of their grand temples before they would vanish.
Rivaling The East
Though pre-classic Mayan cities aren’t often considered on the same level as the ancient Near Eastern cities, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Even more amazingly, the Maya developed their own form of writing nearly simultaneously, despite having no connection to the goings on in the Eastern Hemisphere. The fledging empire was the grandest that has been uncovered in the area, and yet, in the earliest years of the common era, everything collapsed. But it would rise from the ashes greater than before.
Mastering The Numbers
Once they’d adopted a system of writing, the Mayans also moved towards developing more advanced mathematical understanding. They may not have made it to calculus but there was certainly a necessity for more complex calculations when it came to building their great structures. It’s even more notable that they may have begun to use zero before any civilization in the East had adopted the concept. It makes their sudden disappearance several centuries later all the more surprising.
Scrambling To Rebuild
As city after city was abandoned in the first century of the common era, it could hardly have been expected that a new, greater empire would rise out of the ruins. When historians looked back on the artifacts that were left from the pre-classic period, it was equally difficult for them to determine the cause of the original collapse. It wasn’t until recently that they figured out what contributed to the downfall of both of the Mayan Empires.
Overreaching Their Influence
Throughout history and cultures, legends have proliferated about the intrepid souls who believed they could touch the sky. Perhaps the Mayans never considered that their tall monuments might be tempting fate, but much like the tower of Babel and Icarus, they would learn that there are consequences to thinking you wield more power than you do. With no thoughts to their previous collapse, the Mayans pressed on, building an ever-increasing number of cities throughout a larger area of land.
The Phoenix Reborn
The second century raced towards the third, as new generations of Mayans began to peep out from the villages they’d retreated to, building them up into new cities. The geographic area they controlled had expanded, as new Mayan cities were constructed in the highlands of the interior as well as along the Pacific coast. No longer confined to the Yucatan peninsula, the Mayans would soon see their empire thrive, which could only mean their subsequent fall would be an even greater catastrophe.
Lost To Time
Though descendants of the Mayans still populate their ancestral lands, much less is known about the empire from which they once came. In popular culture, many have heard legends of the Mayan calendar ending at the year 2012, but beyond that, the story of the empire has been shrouded by time. Even so, the memory of their greatness still continues to linger as an ever-increasing number of ruins are found jutting out of the dense Central American jungle.
Catastrophe Waiting To Happen
The main period of time we think of when considering Mayan architecture occurred between 250 AD to about 900 AD. As their cities grew once more, the Mayan rulers commissioned ever more elaborate monuments and temples for their cities. Great sculptures of grey stone rose out of the leafy green jungle, a testament to the power of the monarchs ruling over the people. The Maya, it seemed, wanted to not only expand their territory but to touch the sky.
Vying For Power
Unlike other great empires of the world, the Mayan empire wasn’t ruled by one dominant king. Instead, the empire as it looked at its height was a collection of powerful cities, whose individual influence waxed and waned as the years marched on. The big cities were able to grow their power by allying with smaller cities in the surrounding area, ultimately concentrating power in the hands of a few, though this system still left the door open for rivals to spar with each other whenever they chose.
Reaching For The Stars
The layout of Mayan cities differed greatly from the cities of the East that benefitted from some semblance of urban planning. Often the focal point of the city would be a place, with temples and ceremonial ball courts in the adjoining area. The Mayans were keen observers of the heavens, which meant they also accorded space in the city center for astronomy towers. From there, they were better able to observe the changes of the celestial constellations.
Sent From The Heavens
Monarchs in Mayan culture weren’t simply seen as being blessed by God to rule. They were seen as an embodiment of a god themselves, which would then be passed down to their sons, of course, given the governmental framework. As the Mayans inched towards their second collapse, the aristocracy of the Mayan cities gained an increasing amount of control, lessening their monarchs’ power, and likely contributing to the instability that would rock the foundation of their society.
Brother Against Brother
Given that there was no single centralized power among the Mayan states, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the various networks of connected cities often went to war with one another in order to assert their city’s dominance. The frequent occurrence of civil war certainly didn’t help to strengthen the Mayan monarchies. This also likely left them ill-equipped to deal with the trials of nature and biology that can strike any civilization, no matter how advanced.
Into Thin Air
After centuries of Mayan domination, it came as a shock when the cities and commerce that had thrived in Central America for so long simply ceased to exist. By 900 AD, the great Mayan civilization collapsed in its totality. One after another, cities were completely abandoned, though much smaller groups of Mayan people managed to survive. Severely humbled, these survivors set out north, where they tried to reestablish themselves, partially in accordance to the myths that had been passed through the generations.
The Final Frontier
In 1697, the last major Mayan city, Nojpeten, was conquered when the Spanish arrived at their shores. The city sat in the middle of a lake in Northern Guatemala, but even with the surrounding water and defensive wars, the Spanish forces easily overwhelmed the inhabitants. The city may have had its roots in the second Mayan empire, but according to their own records, the city was founded some 200 years before its defeat by those who had been fleeing other wars.
Hiding Their History
The Mayans were avid record keepers, penning their histories and documents in what was called screenfold books. This should have given us many first-hand accounts of what life was like in the Mayan city-states over the hundreds of years that their civilization spanned. This is not the case, unfortunately, as the Spanish were sure to destroy as many records as they could, which left modern-day researchers in the dark as to what really happened in the centuries before the Spanish conquest.
Gone But Not Forgotten
The Spanish conquest may have been the nail in the coffin for the Mayan empire, but that didn’t mean that Mayan culture was stamped out completely. Many Mayan tribes still exist in their ancestral lands, especially in the highlands of Guatemala. Living in small villages hidden by jungle foliage, the Spanish had no means of stamping them out entirely. There is still a modern population speaking Mayan languages and practicing their ancient handicrafts. But they have no answers when it comes to their ancestors’ demise.
Guessing At Answers
Even in the modern era, archeologists have only been able to guess at what caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization. It wasn’t even initially recognized that there had been two collapses that were spread centuries apart. The best they could come up with was overpopulation or possible environmental disasters, if not local wars. It wasn’t until recently that researchers have begun to find new clues as to what drove Mayans out of the great cities and back into the jungle.
Piecing It Together
The research team led by Inomata was also interested in the many fragments of ceramics that were scattered through the site, as they were incredibly useful for gleaning information about the past. Pairing this with their own data, as well as data that had been collected by previous research teams throughout the years, Inomata’s group began to understand the exact waves of prosperity and decline that the city of Seibal went through. The picture they composed had a stunning impact.
Coming In Waves
As the team poured over the information they collected, it became clear that the numbers told the real story. There weren’t two simple collapses that had occurred, but rather a confluence of events that caused waves of decline during the pre-classic and classic period of Mayan history. Inomata explained some of the findings to the University of Arizona newspaper in an interview, saying, “What we found is that those two cases of collapse follow similar patterns.”
Spelling Their Doom
Even if the Maya never managed to rebuild to their previous glory, the main collapse didn’t put an end to their dominance of the area. Like the neighboring Aztec empire, it was the Spanish who snuffed out Mayan control once and for all. Though we know much about how Spanish contact changed the region, rather than serving to give us answers, the conquest only helped to obscure what actually caused the great Mayan civilization to be destroyed.
Hanging On Til The End
One of the most important discoveries that this new research turned up was that there weren’t simply two major collapses that sounded the death of the major Mayan cities. In fact, they could see that there were a number of smaller collapses, followed by recoveries that ended both the earlier and later Mayan civilizations. According to grad student Melissa Burnham, who co-authored the paper, “It’s really, really interesting that these collapses both look very similar, at very different time periods,”
The Lasting Consequences
The discovery the team made with regards to the contributing factors and series of collapses in the Mayan empire doesn’t just impact their own archeological excavations, but can hopefully help others who are doing similar work in other sites. “We now have a good understanding of what the process looks like,” said Burnham, “that potentially can serve as a template for other people to try to see if they have a similar pattern at their (archaeological) sites in the same area.”
Taking Down The Web
Even with this major of a breakthrough, now the team is tasked with trying to figure out the smaller details that led to these collapses. Though they have distinct dates that show when the population grew and shrank, they still don’t know the exact events that led to these changes. However, they’ve still been able to use their data in order to postulate a new model of the various factors that brought about the ruin of the empire.
Fighting For Relevance
Inomata continued to explain the impact of his team’s findings to the paper. “It’s not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse. First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.” Prior to their research, many thought the Mayan civilization disappeared due to a gradual decline, but per Inomata’s new paper, this was not the case.
Searching For Stability
According to this new evidence, it seemed the Mayan political structure was primed for disaster, as rulers were stuck in cycles of warfare with their neighbors. As is the case even in our world today, changes in the political structure can have lasting social consequences, and eventually, the Mayan population was in no place to continue to whether the problems. This still doesn’t tell the whole story of how their great cities came to be completely abandoned.
Clinging To The Trees
In 2012, new reports were published that made it seem clear that the Mayans had practiced rampant deforestation in order to produce the vast quantities of limestone that were necessary for building their palaces, temples, and pyramids, on top of the land they needed in order to grow enough food for the whole population. Many began to believe the loss of the trees in the area contributed to a natural disaster that the population couldn’t overcome in their disordered state.
Dry As A Bone
The researchers back up their claims that climate change and natural disasters may have been the cause of the Mayans’ collapse by analyzing the layers of rock in areas where the empire once stood. According to the scientists who studied the samples, there was a clear drop in the amount of rainfall the area received, and drought generally meant famine in those days. Other climate scientists explain that the reduction in trees only served to decrease the rainfall, but that wasn’t the only answer.
Brushing Off The Dirt
Before this new research team set out to use new technology in order to find more answers as to what happened to the Mayans, most historians figured that it was some confluence of events that led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization. They also figured they should be factoring in the effect of unstable leadership, which contributed to the collapse of much lesser states throughout history. The new information that would be uncovered, however, was truly surprising.
Leader Of The Pack
Takeshi Inomata was the lead researcher on the latest quest to uncover what really happened to the Mayans. A professor of archeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, he brought along a few of his graduate students to the project, in addition to partnering with researchers from several Japanese universities. They worked with a local team in Guatemala in order to put together a paper of their incredible findings, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Traveling Back Through Time
The team converged on Seibal, a large excavation of a Mayan city located in northern Guatemala, where they began sorting through the artifacts more than a decade ago. Seibal was the perfect site to further their investigations. The city had been established somewhere around 400 BC, and at its peak, housed a population of about 10,000. The city also lingered for longer than many others, even though it found itself struggling while the neighboring cities collapsed at the end of the classical period.
Technological Break Throughs
The tool this new team had on its side that many others had lacked was the ability to use radiocarbon dating in order to test the hypothesis that had taken root in the years since the serious study of the Mayans had begun. Through this, they began to piece together exactly how the population of Seibal fluctuated during the years it was populated. By the conclusion of their research, the team was equipped with a dataset of over 150 dates, making it one of the most extensive.
Looking Past The Future
With this new information finally coming to light, the team is excited to press on and look for even more answers about this interesting and mysterious time in history. “Now we’re getting to an interesting period because it’s getting more and more precise,” Inomata told the UANews early last year. “We’re getting to the point where we can get to the interesting social patterns because the chronology is refined enough, and the dating is precise enough.”