“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
Shaw, J. M. (2003). Climate change and deforestation: Implications for the maya collapse. Ancient Mesoamerica, 14(1), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0956536103132063
Stephens, J. L. (2013). Incidents of travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Dover Publications.
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
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella