What really caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization?

What really caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization?

Published August 10, 2023

12 min read

Maya civilization once stretched across a vast territory in Mesoamerica, in what is today southern Mexico and Central America. It was home to thriving cities and thousands of people, but over the course of two centuries, major cities would be emptied, with their grand temples abandoned and vivid artworks unfinished.

Much like its ending, the exact beginning of Maya culture has been difficult to pin down. Many scholars believe it first coalesced sometime between 7000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. after hunter-gatherers from South America moved into Mesoamerica and settled there. Sometime around 4000 B.C., cultivation of corn, their staple crop, exploded, allowing Maya culture to flourish and expand.

Interaction with the neighboring Olmec civilization is believed to have spurred advances in Maya architecture, resulting in the construction of huge ritual complexes surrounded by cities. Among the most important urban centers were Uxmal, Palenque, Chichén Itzá, Tikal, Copán, and Calakmul. Built during the Classic period (A.D. 200-900), the Maya’s soaring pyramid temples and grand buildings—believed by some to be palaces—were richly decorated with sacred art dedicated to the gods.

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Power struggles

Scholars have determined that the Maya did not rule as a unified empire. Rather, this was a shared society. Power struggles did occur, but they were fought by rival city-states or local ajaws, or rulers. Cancún (in modern Mexico) was one such prosperous Maya enclave. It occupied a strategic position on the region’s trade routes and was linked politically with the powerful Maya city of Calakmul. Numerous inscriptions have been found on monuments, but none date to later than the year 800.

Archaeological evidence indicates that in this year, the city suffered a violent attack. The royal family and other members of the nobility were murdered, and their bodies dumped, complete with their emblems of power and jadeite jewelry, into three makeshift burial spaces. In the largest one, archaeologists have unearthed 38 bodies with signs of brutal trauma.

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Such violence was not unusual in the region, but this incident stands out as part of a larger pattern. In the first decades of the ninth century, a political and social crisis affected almost all Maya cities. By the end of the Classic period, Maya sculptors had stopped carving monuments, scribes had ceased recording their rulers’ deeds, and workers had halted construction on palaces and temples. Cities were abandoned. What became known as the Maya collapse was just beginning.

The collapse—a decline that spread from city to city—lasted more than a hundred years. It began in the region known as Petexbatún and crossed the lands near the Usumacinta River.

As cities fell like dominoes, the jungle began to claw back land from the Maya civilization. Plant roots and tendrils curled through palaces, temples, and squares.

Seeking clues

Hidden in the jungle, the remains of Maya architecture provide intriguing insights into the speed of the collapse. One of the last buildings erected in the city of Bonampak, in the Usumacinta River region, features vivid murals showing a victorious battle fought by the ajaw in the year 791, as well as a spectacular royal ceremony. 

But the full artwork is unfinished. Incomplete sketches are visible on the walls, as if artists had put down their tools and walked away in the middle of their work.

An equally dramatic example was found in Yaxchilán, a city close to Bonampak. In 800, the king erected an imposing building and lavishly decorated it with sculpture. The building’s lintels, stelae, and stairs were intricately carved with royal scenes and texts. Just eight years later, the work would be abandoned. The last text found on the site was written in the year 808.

A view of room one of the murals building

A view of room one of the murals building

Ritterbach/Age Fotostock

At the start of the ninth century, builders began work on a magnificent temple in the city of Aguateca (in modern Guatemala). But in 810, construction stopped suddenly, leaving the temple half-finished. The stelae that had been smoothed ready for carving were never adorned. There’s evidence to show that palisades and defensive fortifications were built, suggesting that the people of Aguateca perceived an external threat. A few years later, the city was deserted. Whatever struck these cities hit them quickly.

The Maya collapse has been studied by countless scholars, who have developed fascinating theories to solve the mystery of the collapse. Many agree that there was no single cause but rather a complex combination of factors that led to the fall of Maya society.

Stresses and strains

There are many collapse hypotheses, and most draw on several common factors. One is that overpopulation in Maya cities helped trigger this crisis by overstraining local resources. At the beginning of the ninth century, Maya civilization reached the peak of its demographic curve. Tikal, in present-day Guatemala, was the most populous of all the Maya cities and had grown to around 50,000 inhabitants. Some scholars believe that local agriculture, even if expanded, would struggle to support the population. In terms of demography, it’s not clear how the populations redistributed themselves after abandoning the cities.

A strong contender is that drought led to the collapse. Recent studies on the Mesoamerican paleoclimate suggest that around the ninth century, a prolonged water shortage occurred in some regions of the Maya lowlands, leading to crop losses and localized famines. Food shortages challenged the Maya leaders’ control of the region. Perhaps people fled to search for more fertile lands, or maybe they rebelled against their ajaws.

Another factor that undoubtedly contributed to the Maya collapse was armed conflict stemming from power struggles. Fighting blocked roads and trade routes, so that goods could not be moved around quickly, leading to shortages, economic collapse, and mass population migrations. In the ninth century, there was an increase in the number of texts that allude to warfare between cities. Various carved panels show ajaws holding enemies captive. The names of these defeated rulers are carved on their legs and tunics.

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Political unrest

Even more of an enigma is the fact that a century and a half later, Maya cities in the northern areas of the Yucatan Peninsula experienced a collapse that seemed to mirror the first. The city of Uxmal, for example, during the 10th century had become the main center of power in the Puuc region. An enormous palace served as both a royal residence and the place where the nobility would hold councils. There was also a ball court, along with a ceremonial complex called the Nunnery Quadrangle. The reliefs, paintings, and inscriptions from this period evoke scenes of war, with warriors decked out in full battle regalia and prisoners being sacrificed. 

But then Uxmal faced a dramatic decline in the 11th century. Construction ons everal monumental works was never completed. The immediate cause of this crisis appears to have been the expansion of the neighboring city of Chichén Itzá. In parallel, the eastern region of Puuc became increasingly depopulated until it was totally abandoned by the beginning of the 11th century.

Researchers have tried to look beyond simplistic catastrophizing to the myriad complexities and regional idiosyncrasies that might explain the collapse of the Maya civilization. This collapse meant the end of a political and economic system and the abandonment of cities across the southern lowlands. The cities of the northern lowlands also were abandoned 150 years later. 

The Maya civilization never recovered, at least in the form it had once known. However, the descendants of Maya nobles, priests, warriors, and farmers today inhabit the same lands as their ancestors and perpetuate their culture in the still spoken Indigenous languages and in religious rituals. Ancestral farming practices have not been forgotten, nor have traditional styles of clothes and jewelry. Although the Maya collapse seemed to spell the end for the Maya civilization, in fact, Maya culture continues to thrive.

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