Surviving the Maya Collapse
“In the romance of the world’s history, nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident, overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it.” ~John Lloyd Stephens
Between approximately 750-900 AD, many of the great classic period cities of the Maya Lowlands fell into decline. Cities which had dominated the region for centuries saw an end to monumental inscriptions, and the decline of large scale architectural construction. Since their discovery by archaeologists, the ruins of these cities have captured the public conscience, and this has come with some misconceptions. Today I want to explain why this “lost civilization” was never actually lost.
“Much has been published in recent years about the collapse of Maya civilization and its causes. It might be wise to preface this chapter with a simple statement that in my belief no such thing happened.” (Andrews IV 1973: 243).
During the Maya classic period, the heart of Maya civilization was the southern lowlands of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. Great city centers like Tikal, Caracol, Calakmul, and Palenque dominated the region. Population estimates for the lowlands have ballooned in recent years as aerial lidar surveys continue to reveal huge swathes of previously undocumented constructions in wide hinterlands surrounding each city (Canuto et al. 2018). Some scholars have suggested as many as 11 million people belonged to this civilization. Vast systems of roads and causeways, agricultural development, and monumental architecture spiderwebbed out from the cities. In the last couple centuries of the classic period, this growth even seems to have sped up, along with ever increasing elite power and prestige. But by the 900s A.D., construction was grinding to a halt, and whole cities were being abandoned, with temples and elite tombs looted for resources by people who no longer respected these once august authorities. I’d like to share a few theories for why this happened, and talk a little about who survived, right up until the arrival of the Spanish a half-millennium onwards.
Some researchers have argued that elite competition and inter-city military conflict spiraled out of control. According to one archaeologist, “as the period progressed, wall and palisade systems were constructed around major centers, and later a shift even occurred in the rural population to fortified defensible locations such as hilltop fortresses” (Demarest 1997: 220). However, recent studies have shown that scorched-earth warfare was practiced even during the height of classic Maya civilization, without destabilizing the whole thing (Wahl et al. 2019). Moreover, we still have to ask the question: was warfare a cause, or just a consequence of some other problem that rocked the Maya world-system?
In the Maya lowlands, water management was often critically important. Low water tables required people to rely on rainfall, and major cities constructed huge reservoirs and catchment systems. These cities were therefore vulnerable to drought, and many studies have suggested drought as a primary cause of the post-classic collapse. For example, stalagmites from caves in Belize - which can act as records of past climate change - show evidence for a major drought between 700-1135 A.D. (Webster et al. 2007). Studies of sediment core samples have also demonstrated this drought took place (Hodell et al. 1995).
The environment can shape human society, but humans also shape the environment. We know that lowland cities were cutting down trees so rapidly deforestation became a serious issue. This could have caused a cascade of effects, from erosion and soil degradation, to rising temperatures and more drought (Shaw, 2003). More and more intensive agriculture also developed near the end of the Maya classic period which led to “a severe depletion of agricultural resources and largely accounts for a steep drop in population numbers around the year 900” (Roman et al. 2017).
Researchers have also brought up social inequality as a cause- essentially, that competition between Maya elites caused the environmental degradation and violence we’ve already discussed. Maybe it was a perfect storm, with a centuries-long drought layered over violence, layered over mismanaged resources by a ruling class more and more disconnected from life among the common people. “In each region of the Maya world this intensifying inter-elite competition manifested itself in somewhat different ways: wasteful architectural extravagance, ecological over-exploitation, balkanization of political authority, and, in some areas, an intensification of regional warfare” (Demarest 1997: 221)
Of course, civilizations don’t exist in a vacuum, and the Maya lowlands were also being acted on by the other parts of the Maya world. For example, studies have shown that as the classic period drew to a close, obsidian trade networks began shifting towards the Caribbean and gulf coasts (Golitko et al. 2012). In this sense, some of the decline lowland cities faced might have been due to geopolitical or economic shifts outside their control.
The Mayan lowland site of Lamanai (Pendergast 1981) is an interesting case study. It appears that the people of Lamanai somehow managed to bring the patterns of their existence through the time of collapse almost intact, and to carry on with life throughout the Post-Classic while gradually abandoned neighboring centers were falling into decay. Evidence for steady construction on both ceremonial and non-ceremonial structures shows that the elite managed to maintain power. The site’s position on the New River lagoon gave it maritime trade connections with the Northern Yucatan, where other cities were also on the rise. The ceramics at Lamanai also show stylistic similarities with northern Mayan polities, which, again, shows the coastal cultural sphere they belonged to. This ceramic incense burner is a great example, being sculpted in the style of Mayapan, a rising power in the post-classic Maya world. Additionally, evidence for cultivation around Lamanai indicates that the city was able to take advantage of diverse flora and fauna, muting the effects of whatever drought they might have faced during the late classic period.
Lamanai is just one example, but numerous cities persisted or emerged after the classic period. In part, this might have been due better environmental conditions than in the lowlands. For instance, on the Yucatan the water table is shallow enough that it can be accessed via natural wells, called cenotes (Webster et al. 2007). For example, Chichen Itza thrived from 800-1100 (Aimers 2007). There are four cenotes near the city that could have provided plentiful water year round, making the area attractive for settlement. Of these cenotes, the Sacred Cenote (also variously known as the Sacred Well or Well of Sacrifice), is the most famous. Participating in the water-borne circum-peninsular trade route through its port site of Isla Cerritos on the north coast, Chichen Itza was able to obtain locally unavailable resources from distant areas such as obsidian from central Mexico and gold from southern Central America.
Mayapan rose to prominence between 1200-1500, as another important post-classic center of Maya life. Mayapan was both an economic core zone and a seat of political power, with a highly urbanized center and a large population. Mayapan became the primary city in a group of allies that included much of the northern Yucatán. The city was intentionally designed defensively: its exterior wall does not bisect preexisting buildings, and there are gates on all sides of the city. Mayapan supported numerous craft specialists who created a variety of artifacts such as ceramic effigy censers, lithic tools, and metal objects (Paris, 2008).
One last region I wanted to mention is the southeastern highlands of Guatemala, as well as the pacific coastal region beyond. While notable classic Maya cities in the area, like Copan and Quiriguá declined along with the lowland cities, there were also new centers of power that emerged, right up to the arrival of the Spanish. For example, the city of Utatlan had a population as high as 15,000, and remained a regional power until the Spanish burned it in 1524 (Carmack & Weeks 1981).
All of this is to say: the Maya survived the classic period collapse. And anyways, decline is probably a more accurate word. They continued to build cities and produce great cultural achievements. Moreover, there are still Maya people alive today. In fact, there are an estimated 6 Million Mayan speakers, mainly living in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
“Asking ‘Why did the Maya collapse?’ is rather like asking ‘Why did the Maya disappear?’ Answers are difficult because the questions are inappropriate” (Aimers 2007: 351).
Our understanding of this decline is actually quite deep and nuanced, with archaeologists successfully mapping out the effects of a complex mosaic of variables across the whole of the Maya world. Like many events in history, this one is less of a mystery than headlines might make you believe.
Aimers, J. J. (2007). What Maya collapse? Terminal Classic variation in the Maya Lowlands. Journal of Archaeological Research, 15(4), 329–377. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-007-9015-x
Andrews IV, E. W. (1973). The development of Maya civilization after the abandonment of the southern cities. In T. P. Culbert (Ed.), The Classic Maya collapse (pp. 243–265). essay, University of New Mexico Press.
Canuto, M. A., Estrada-Belli, F., Garrison, T. G., Houston, S. D., Acuña, M. J., Kováč, M., Marken, D., Nondédéo, P., Auld-Thomas, L., Castanet, C., Chatelain, D., Chiriboga, C. R., Drápela, T., Lieskovský, T., Tokovinine, A., Velasquez, A., Fernández-Díaz, J. C., & Shrestha, R. (2018). Ancient lowland maya complexity as revealed by Airborne Laser Scanning of northern Guatemala. Science, 361(6409). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aau0137
Carmack, R. M., & Weeks, J. M. (1981). The archaeology and ethnohistory of utatlan: A Conjunctive approach. American Antiquity, 46(2), 323–341. https://doi.org/10.2307/280211
Demarest, A. A. (1997). The Vanderbilt Petexbatun regional archaeological project 1989–1994: Overview, history, and major results of a multidisciplinary study of the Classic Maya collapse. Ancient Mesoamerica, 8(2), 209–227. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0956536100001693
Golitko, M., Meierhoff, J., Feinman, G. M., & Williams, P. R. (2012). Complexities of collapse: The evidence of Maya obsidian as revealed by Social Network Graphical Analysis. Antiquity, 86(332), 507–523. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003598x00062906
Hodell, D. A., Curtis, J. H., & Brenner, M. (1995). Possible role of climate in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Nature, 375(6530), 391–394. https://doi.org/10.1038/375391a0
Milbrath, S., & Peraza Lope, C. (2003). Revisiting mayapan: Mexico's last maya capital. Ancient Mesoamerica, 14(1), 1–46. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0956536103132178
Paris, E. H. (2008). Metallurgy, Mayapan, and the Postclassic Mesoamerican World System. Ancient Mesoamerica, 19(1), 43–66. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0956536108000291
Pendergast, D. M. (1981). Lamanai, belize: Summary of excavation results, 1974-1980. Journal of Field Archaeology, 8(1), 29. https://doi.org/10.2307/529781
Roman, S., Palmer, E., & Brede, M. (2018). The dynamics of human–environment interactions in the collapse of the classic maya. Ecological Economics, 146, 312–324. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.11.007
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Wahl, D., Anderson, L., Estrada-Belli, F., & Tokovinine, A. (2019). Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic maya. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(10), 1049–1054. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0671-x
Webster, J. W., Brook, G. A., Railsback, L. B., Cheng, H., Edwards, R. L., Alexander, C., & Reeder, P. P. (2007). Stalagmite evidence from Belize indicating significant droughts at the time of Preclassic abandonment, the maya hiatus, and the Classic Maya collapse. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 250(1-4), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2007.02.022
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