The Maya lived in Central America and Yucatan Peninsula since at least of 1800 B.C. and flourished in the region for thousands of years.
According to countless studies, Maya civilization collapsed between A.D. 800 & 1000. But though the term “Maya collapse” brings-up images of ruins overgrown with forests and of an ancient civilization whose cities fell & were abandoned, reality is far more complex.
So, why did Maya civilization collapse and can you even call it a “collapse”?
For starters, Maya still here today. “It was the Maya political system that collapsed, not society,” Lisa Lucero, professor of anthropology & medieval studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The over 7 million Maya living today in Central America and beyond attest to the present fact.”
The ancient Maya did not have one central leader, like an emperor in ancient Rome and weren’t unified into one state.
Instead, ancient Maya civilization consisted of various small states, each centered around a city. While these city states shared similarities in culture & religion, they each had their own local leaders, some more powerful than others.
There was no single collapse for these polities, rather, a number of Maya cities rose & fell at different times, some within that 800 to 1000 period of time and some afterward, consistent with scholars.
For instance, while areas in southern Mesoamerica like Tikal in what’s now Guatemala, declined in the eighth & ninth centuries due to environmental problems & political turmoil, populations rose in other areas, like Chichén Itzá, on what’s now the Mexican Yucatan, scholars said.
“Collapse is not a term that ought to be universally applied to ‘the’ Maya, who shouldn’t be mentioned as one term either,” Marilyn Masson, a professor & chair of anthropology at University at Albany, State University of New York.
“The Maya region was large with many polities and environments and multiple languages were spoken in the Maya family.”
When Chichén Itzá declined, largely due to a lengthy drought during 11th century, another Yucatan Peninsula city called Mayapán, started to thrive.
“Mayapan had lords, priests, many religious hieroglyphic books, complex astronomy & a pantheon of deities,” Masson said. “Much of what we know about earlier Maya religion comes from books written in Mayapan’s day and from descendant populations who met & survived European contact.”
While Mayapán declined before European contact, partly due to warfare, another Yucatan Peninsula site called Ti’ho was growing at the time Europeans arrived, Masson said.
Maya states continued to exist even after the region was ravaged by war & disease caused by European conquests in Central America.
“We should always remember, the last Maya state, Nojpetén, fell only in 1697, pretty recent,” said Guy Middleton, a visiting fellow at varsity of History, Classics & Archaeology at Newcastle University in the U.K.
Why did they fall?
A mix of political & environmental problems is usually blamed for the decline of Maya cities.
Analysis of speleothems or rock structures in caves like stalactites & stalagmites, shows that “several severe, multi-year, droughts struck between [A.D.] 800 & 930” in the southern Mesoamerica region, Lucero said.
“And since the foremost powerful Maya kings relied on urban reservoirs to attract farmers or subjects during the annual dry season for access to clean drinking water, decreasing rainfall meant water levels dropped, crops failed & kings lost their means of power.”
What’s more, “the decreasing rainfall exacerbated any problems kings were having,” she said.
The fact that Maya rulers often linked their own powers to deities, created more political problems. The issues Maya suffered from droughts “caused people to lose trust in their rulers, which is more than just losing trust in the government when your rulers are closely tied to deities,” said Justine Shaw, an anthropology professor at College of the Redwoods in California.
The droughts, combined with political turmoil, would also have disrupted agriculture, maintenance of water storage systems, and resulted in Maya rulers wasting resources on warfare, Shaw said.
Lucero noted that some Maya areas experienced deforestation & lower water levels made it harder to trade good. “Less rainfall likely impacted canoe trade since water levels noticeably drop each season, so less rain meant less canoe travel,” Lucero said.
However, a “collapse” in one area might be a time of “boom” in another. The Cochuah region on Yucatan Peninsula thrived during the Terminal Classic [800 to 930] after much of the south was de-populated thanks to drought & political conflict.
“But it, too, eventually lost much of its occupants,” Shaw said. The reasons, why Cochuah boomed & collapsed are currently being investigated.
This pattern of decline in one area & growth in another continued through the time of European conflict with Maya cities. Political & environmental problems often led to the decline of one area, while another area grew possibly because they weren’t suffering as badly from these problems.
After last Maya state was conquered by the Spanish in 1697, Maya people continued on, enduring discrimination, and at times revolting against Spain & governments that came into power after Spanish colonial rule ended in 1821.
“The Maya have suffered horrendously, but periodically have rebelled, unsuccessfully, they still lack adequate political representation in the countries where they live,” Middleton said.
“It is really important to get the message out there that though classic Maya cities & states did collapse and culture did transform, the Maya in no way disappeared,” said Middleton, adding that “we should attention to the story, the state & status of the Maya descendent population in Mesoamerica now.”
The article originally published on Live Science.