Why did the Mayan civilization disappear?
The Mayan civilization has almost disappeared in two centuries. A consensus has not been established on its decline, but several serious hypotheses are put forward. Disappearance of Maya Civilization by:
- Climate change amplified by deforestation
- Environmental degradation due to agricultural activities
- An archaic political system
- Internal wars
- Foreign invasions
- The disruption of commercial networks
No epidemic, no curse, no earthquake. The extincti
on of the Mayan civilization – which American archaeologist Michael D. Coe calls “the deepest social and demographic catastrophe in human history” – did not happen overnight. Historians and scientists today agree that the abandonment of its cities, which occurred between the years 800 and 1000, is attributed to a combination of several factors.
Calakmul, Caracol, Palenque, Tonina, Chichén Itzá… And so many others! The Mayan territory is made up of hundreds of city-states, including ten, like Tikal, which can each accommodate up to 70,000 inhabitants. Estimates by the American climatologist Benjamin I. Cook show a population of nearly 10 million people during the Mayan heyday, between 600 and 800. A period when we are witnessing a proliferation of prosperous cities such as Yaxchilán , Bonampak, Piedras Negras, Copán, Ceibal, Xunantunich or Altar de los Sacrificios.
The origin of this decline is multiple and a mixture of cultural, climatic and human causes. It should be noted that no one today can say with certainty what happened to the Mayans. These are only hypotheses, more or less verified in part and which still remain to be fully demonstrated. Although the Mayan people never entirely disappeared — their descendants still live across Central America—dozens of core urban areas in the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, such as Tikal, went from bustling cities to abandoned ruins over the course of roughly a hundred years.
But what may appear to be a strength quickly turns into a weakness: these millions of souls constitute so many mouths to feed! However, their tropical and forest land offers little room for agriculture. To alleviate soil poverty, the technique used is that of milpa: two to three years of cultivation for eight to ten years of fallow. With the growth of the population, the peasants stop respecting this rest period and increase the rotation of crops. The gears are on. The lands are becoming increasingly impoverished and irreversibly, and the yields are becoming increasingly low: “Fifteen hectares and about fifty days of work… to feed a family of ten people for a year”, estimates the French geographer Jean-Noël Salomon, author of the Decline of Classical Mayan Civilization (ed. Cahiers d’Outre-Mer, 2009). An extremely dangerous situation in societies where the economy is based on agriculture.
Read also: Maya Civilization | People, geography and languages, The ancient Mayan cities, Mayan society, Cosmology and religion, Hieroglyphic writing, Arithmetic, The Mayan calendar, Astronomy, Contemporary civilization
Farmers have no other choice but to expand their agricultural land – sometimes as far as tens of kilometers from their homes – to the detriment of the forest. Massive deforestation which accentuates soil erosion, nutrient deficiency, and even, in certain regions such as Petén, significant landslides, thus condemning production possibilities. Malnutrition, famine and therefore disease push the Mayan populations to flee the cities to fall back on small individual farms.
Climate change amplified by deforestation
Disappearance of Maya Civilization may be caused by the limate change amplified by deforestation!
Scientists know it well: the composition of the stalagmites is a wonderful testimony to the weather conditions of yesteryear. In 2012, anthropologists, climatologists and archaeologists took an interest in these limestone formations in a cave in the Belize region, east of the Mayan territory: Aktun Tunichil Muknal. By studying their chemical combination, including the concentration of mineral salts, they were able to determine that, after a long period of rainfall (approximately 450 to 660), the Mayan region experienced phases of extreme drought from the 800s.
As a result, the overexploitation of resources during torrential years – accompanied by an increase in the population – gave way to a dramatic drop in yields during the heat wave. A natural phenomenon amplified by deforestation: “The transition from the forest to the cultivation of corn reduces the level of humidity transferred from the soil to the atmosphere, which lowers the level of precipitation”, explains the American climatologist. Benjamin Cook.
Thanks to recent computer simulations, NASA researchers estimate that the disappearance of the forest has raised temperatures by three to five degrees and caused rainfall to drop by 20% to 30%. However, maize or corn, the main resource of these populations, is particularly sensitive to drought: “To ensure a harvest, you need at least an annual precipitation of the order of 600 millimeters”. Studies show that between 760 and 910, the threshold of 450 millimeters, vital to growing corn, was rarely reached. Combined with the impoverishment of the soil, this phenomenon was a coup de grace. Unable to meet their food needs, the Mayan peasants had to abandon the cities and migrate to other regions, further west of what is now Mexico.
Environmental degradation due to agricultural activities
Another theory favored by specialists is environmental degradation due to agricultural activities. In its simplest form, exposed by Sylvanus Morley in the mid-twentieth century, it posits that the Mayan practice of extensive slash-and-burn agriculture depleted the soil. The peasants would then have left their land to settle elsewhere. The reality is more nuanced.
The Mayan peasants of the Lowlands certainly cultivate a soil which is generally of poor quality: the layer of humus is generally fine and the soil poor in nutrients. They have nevertheless developed forms of intensive agriculture, capable of supporting large populations, such as earthworks in Caracol for example or the digging of canals to drain marshy areas where raised fields are developed, such as Pulltrouser Swamp. in Belize. But here too, however, we must beware of hasty generalizations: research has shown that certain “raised fields” were only forms of natural relief18. As the population continued to increase, the system would have been pushed to its limits. In a more elaborate form of theory, population pressure would have forced the Mayans to find new arable land, clearing increasingly fragile lands on the hillsides, as in Copan. Deforestation would then have been accompanied by erosion and rapid soil impoverishment.
Disappearance of Maya Civilization by an archaic political system
“States-theaters.” This is how the American anthropologist Arthur Demarest defines the political system of the great Mayan cities in his book Les Mayas (ed. Tallandier, 2007). Within this civilization, no head of state with administrative and economic responsibility, but an authority based on representation. In each city reigns the K’uhul Ajaw (divine lord), a king with a “charismatic and shamanic” character, supposed to ensure the link between humans and supernatural powers. Its authority is based on the staging of divine attributes through processions, festivals or rituals. These extravagances also contributed to the fall of the Mayan civilization.
The structure of the territory, made up of a multitude of independent cities, fuels competition. To mark his domination over his neighbors, the king must always display more wealth. And the rise of cities during the years 700 to 800 intensified this race for prestige. An exorbitant cost which gradually leads the cities to ruin.
Another factor of fragility: the polygamy of the elites and their demographic growth “which multiply the number of princes ready to compete for positions of power”, explains Arthur Demarest. Fratricidal quarrels, desecrated power … It is becoming difficult for the people to keep their faith in a K’uhul Ajaw who has become “too human”. Especially since the notables are unable to respond to the subsistence crisis that hit the population in the 800s. Increasingly bloody ceremonies, sacrifices to the gods of Rain (Chac) and agriculture (Ahmakiq) constitute their the only answer to stem the drought. A ruined people, living in insecurity: the conditions for collapse have been met. Revolts followed, and possibly the Mayan exodus to the north.
Defensive walls hastily built with stones torn from temples, village fortresses, abandoned palaces, thrones torn to pieces, statues deliberately deteriorated… traditional Mayan habitat, but they bear witness to extreme militarization and violence and this is one of the causes of the disappearance of Maya Civilization.
The theory of a revolt of the peasant class against the elites, one of the oldest explanations, has been defended by the Mayanist John Eric Thompson. The peasants, bowing under the weight of the drudgery imposed on them by the ruling class, refused to continue building prestigious monuments. The main archaeological argument invoked in favor of this thesis is the abandonment of certain monuments in the middle of their construction. One can object that this theory does not explain the depopulation of whole regions, like the Petén where Cortés could still observe it during his passage in 1525.
Of course, war and rivalry are commonplace between city-states. A way for kings to assert their power and obtain prisoners to offer as sacrifices to the gods. But, from the 900s onwards, the instability seemed more marked. The number and intensity of conflicts is increasing and leading the cities into a downward spiral.
Fleeing war, the people went into exile and political power gradually crumbled. Weakened, the Mayan civilization is no longer able to resist the invasion of other Mesoamerican cultures. In cities like Chichén Itzá, Tikal or Ceibal, frescoes and ceramics from the 9th century attest to the coexistence of Mayan and Toltec motifs.
The “theater states” are gradually replaced by more centralized systems in the style of what was practiced at the time among the Toltecs and the Mixtecs and which would later take over by the Aztecs. But if the sumptuous cities are abandoned, culture is far from disappearing. Even today, the Mayan languages are spoken by approximately 6 million people in Central America.
Disappearance of Maya Civilization by foreign invasions
Foreign invasions are a hypothesis that gained some popularity during the 1960s when archaeologists exploring the site of Seibal saw signs of outside influences there around 800. This influence was attributed to an invasion of “Mexicanized” Putun Mayas. of Tabasco on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. This theory which was still quoted in the penultimate edition of Robert J. Sharer’s book The Ancient Maya has disappeared from the last edition of this work. The texts of Seibal have revealed that the names and titles of the new masters of the city in the ninth century are part of the classical tradition, with some external borrowings which reflect an attempt at local adaptation to a changing environment. Yes, and it’s one of the causes of the disappearance of Maya Civilization.
The disruption of commercial networks
The disruption of commercial networks is a theory that integrates the Mayan collapse into a larger framework, at the level of Mesoamerica: the economic relations between the Mayan zone and the city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. Such reports have undoubtedly existed and traces have been found in several Mayan sites, notably in Tikal, not to mention the presence of Mayans in Teotihuacan itself. The fall of Teotihuacan would have brought about the interruption of the commercial network which was at the base of the wealth and prestige of the Mayan elites. This ingenious theory was undermined by the revision of the Teotihuacan chronology. While the decline and fall of the Mexican megalopolis was once located around 750 or even later, these events are now believed to have taken place in the sixth century, a chronological shift incompatible with the period of the Mayan collapse.
Photo credit: Tikal, Guatemala; Credit: Chen Si Yuan via Globalsherpa
Photo explanations (main photo): Tikal is an ancient Mayan citadel located in the heart of the tropical forests of northern Guatemala. Probably built in the 1st century AD, Tikal flourished between 200 and 850 AD, before being abandoned. Its famous temple and palace ruins include the gigantic ceremonial pyramid of the Lost World and the Temple of the Great Jaguar. With its 70 meters high, Temple IV is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas and offers an impressive view.