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Maya Culture Collapse: Current Theory

Ruler being painted on backside while looking into mirror held by attend. One woman holds mask or trophy
head, second woman looks on. Palace. If the woman is holding a death mask, then it is possible that the ruler is dead and being prepared for his burial.


    Theories of the Maya collapse have varied. Warfare and invasion, elite's guilt, superstition, environmental destruction altogether with population growth are some of them (Wilk: 1985: 315-16, Montejo 1999:). Even the esoteric thinking propose that in 830 AD, The Maya Elites returned to their Dimension, at the end of Bak'tún 9.

  There was not only that enormous Classic collapse but also at least one smaller Pre-Classic collapse, around A.D. 150, as well as some post-Classic collapses, (Kaminal Juyú, Cotzumalguapa Nuclear Zone, Chichén Itzá, etc). The Classic collapse was obviously not complete, as occupation in some cities such as La Joyanca, in La Joyanca, Structure 6E-12, Temple with ancient graffiti in its roomsNorthwestern Petén expanded up to at least 1000 AD, and because hundreds of thousands of Maya descendants, (some 28 tribes), survived, in areas with stable water supplies, to meet and fight the Spaniards. The collapse of population (as gauged by numbers of houses, sites and of obsidian tools) was in some cases much slower than the decline in numbers of Long Count dates. Many apparent collapses of cities were nothing more than "power cycling"; i.e., particular cities becoming more powerful at the expense of neighboring cities, then declining or getting conquered by neighbors, without changes in the whole population. Finally, cities in different parts of the Maya area rose and fell on different trajectories. in a south to north and west to east pattern beginning  ca 800 DC. Archaeological evidence indicates a large population decline in the Mirador Basin at the end of the Late Preclassic (300 B.C. to  250 A.D.). The most important site, El Mirador, was abruptly abandoned around A.D. 150  (R.D. Hansen 1990; Howell and Copeland 1989).

EL Mirador in 300 BC

   The abandonment of El Mirador and the surrounding area appears to have been relatively rapid and enduring. Small populations occupied the region during the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), but did not rival the cultural apogee of the Late Preclassic period. The pollen data from Lake Puerto Arturo in the Mirador Basin, corroborate this abandonment. The paleo-environmental evidence for this abandonment is similar to that of the Middle Preclassic recovery phase. Increased values of grasses and weeds, including maize pollen, from ca. 1200 B.C. to A.D. 100, mark the intervening disturbance period. After A.D. 100, these grasses began a steep decline and minimum values persist from ~A.D. 130-225. Thus, it appears the Preclassic abandonment was underway shortly after A.D. 100. The Late Classic collapse is clearly present in the Puerto Arturo pollen record. An abrupt drop in grass, weed and agricultural pollen begins around A.D. 915. By A.D. 960, pollen from these groups, which had dominated the record for 2400 years, dropped to near zero values which persist to the present. The rapid change of pollen frequencies at this time is similar to changes in the Late Classic pollen record from "Aguada Zacatal", near Nakbé (Wahl 2000). Forest recovery was also relatively rapid; pollen from forest trees reached pre-disturbance levels within 100 years. The vegetation record shows three discrete periods of decreased disturbance and/or abandonment in the late Holocene: ~2500-2300 cal yr B.P. (550-350 B.C.), ~1820-1725 cal yr B.P. (A.D. 130-225), and ~1000 cal yr B.P. (A.D. 950)–present.  (David Wahl, 2005) . Pollen shows an abrupt increase in anthropogenic disturbance in the Early Preclassic (~1450 B.C.), coincident with archaeological evidence of early settlement.

Before its collapse, the Mayan empire stretched out from its center in Guatemala’s Petén region to the north lowlands, across the Highlands and Pacific lowlands of Central America. Pollen samples collected from columns of soil that archeologists have excavated in lakes across the regionYaxhá, Temple 2, East Acropolis provide evidence of widespread deforestation approximately 1,200 years ago, when weed pollen almost completely replaced tree pollen. The clearing of rainforest led to heightened erosion and evaporation; the evidence of the erosion appears in thick layers of sediment washed into lakes. This also disrupted the intensive agricultural system, that they have been using during 2000  years.

 Another piece of evidence, is the thickness of the floor stones in the Mayan ruins. They would have needed about 20 trees [to build a fire large and hot enough] to make a plaster floor stone that is about one square meter. In the earliest ruins, these stones were a foot or more thick, but they progressively got thinner. The most recently built ones were only a few inches thick. Atmospheric scientist Bob Oglesby of Marshall Space Flight Center, calls the Mayan deforestation episode “the granddaddy of all deforestation events”.  Dr. Hansen studying
The Mirador Basin, believes this also happen during the Pre Classic Maya Collapse. Studies of settlement remains, show that this deforestation coincided with a dramatic drop in the Mayan population.  After two millennia of steady growth, the Mayan population reached an all-time high. Population density ranged from 400 to 600 people per square mile in the rural areas, and from 1,800 to 2,600 people per square mile near the center of the Mayan Empire
(in what is Topoxte Temple C, early post Classic now El Petén Guatemala). In comparison, Los Angeles County averaged 2,345 people per square mile in 2000. Yet by studying remains of Mayan settlements, Sever found that by 950 A.D., the population had crashed. “Perhaps as many as 90 to 95 percent of the Maya died”. There was also very few remains in the domestic dumpsters of large game like Deer, Tapir, Jaguar and Cougar toward the end of Mayan rule in proportion to smaller game, pointing to over-hunting of the favored animals. The lower classes would give the best cuts of white-tailed deer meat to the rich as a form of taxes, themselves eating small game like rabbits and squirrels. The hunger at the end of the Classic, has been documented in the skeletons of this era, including those of the Royalty. 

 “If we completely deforest an area and replace it with grassland, we find that it gets considerably warmer—as much as 5 to 6 degrees Celsius,” Oglesby said. Sunlight that normally evaporates water from the rainforest canopy would instead heat the ground. Although his model paints a more extreme picture than what actually happened (the region was heavily, but probably not completely deforested), Oglesby suspects that deforestation contributed to a drought. Lake sediment cores indicate that the Mayan deforestation appears to have coincided with natural climate variability that was already producing a drought. “Combined with the land-use changes, the drought was a double whammy,” he said. By 950 A.D., the Mayan lowland cities were largely deserted. (NASA -DAAC Study, Michon Scott).

Guatemala’s sparsely populated Petén district stands in stark contrast to the
stripped and tilled landscape of Mexico. Landsat NASA

   Today the Petén, geographically the largest province in Guatemala, has a population of 400,000, living in isolated towns scattered through a forested wilderness. In the eighth century, by some estimates, ten million people lived in the Maya lowlands.  In fact, settlements around centers like Tikal reached population densities of up to 2,600 people per square mile. That’s more than half the population density of modern-day New York City. The landscape was an almost unbroken fabric of intensely cultivated farms, gardens, and villages, linked by a web of trails and Sacbe'ob,  paved causeways connecting monumental city-states.

The Maize God in the upper register. A woman holding the baby Maize God speaks to the Hero Twin Hunahpú,.
Behind the Twin is his brother Xbalanqué, as God A-prime.


Some archaeologists focus on these complications and don't want to recognize a Classic Maya collapse at all, due to the raise of Maya cities in Yucatán, that where Toltec, that acquired some Maya culture aspects. But this overlooks the obvious fact that cries out for explanation: The disappearance of between 90 and 99 percent of the Maya population after A.D. 900, and of the institution of the kingship, Long Count calendars, and other complex political and cultural institutions. Before we can understand those disappearances, however, we need first to understand the roles of
warfare and of drought

Maya farmers were well skilled in sophisticated techniques designed to get maximum production from delicate tropical soils. But beginning in the ninth century, studies of lake-bed sediments show, a series of prolonged droughts struck the Maya world, hitting especially hard in cities like Tikal, which depended on rain both for drinking water and to reinvigorate the swampland (bajos), where farmers grew their crops. River ports like Cancuén might have escaped water shortages, but across much of the Maya region the lake-bed sediments also show ancient layers of eroded soil, testimony to deforestation and overuse of the land.

Maya warfare involved well-documented types of violence: wars among separate kingdoms; attempts of cities within a kingdom to secede by revolting against the capital; and civil wars resulting from frequent violent attempts by would-be kings to usurp the throne. All of these events were described or depicted on monuments, because they involved kings and nobles. Not considered worthy of description, but probably even more frequent, were fights between commoners over land, as overpopulation became excessive and land became scarce.

Late Classic site, Punta de Chimino, in the Petexbatún lake area, note the defensive
wall and the ditches separating the site from mainland.

The other phenomenon important to understanding all of these collapses is the repeated occurrence of droughts, as inferred by climatologists from evidence of lake evaporation preserved in lake sediments, and as summarized by Gill in "The Great Maya Droughts". The rise of the Classic Maya civilization may have been facilitated by a rainy period beginning around 250 B.C., until a temporary drought after A.D. 125 was associated with a pre-Classic collapse at some sites. That collapse was followed by the resumption of rainy conditions and the buildup of Classic Maya cities, briefly interrupted by another drought around 600 corresponding to a decline at Tikal and some other sites. Finally, around A.D. 750 there began the worst drought in the past 7,000 years, peaking around the year A.D. 800, and suspiciously associated with the Classic collapse. The area most affected by the Classic collapse was the southern lowlands, probably for the two reasons already mentioned: it was the area with the densest population, and it also had the most severe water problems because it lay too high above the water table for cenotes or wells to provide water. The Petén lowlands lost more than 90 percent of its population in the course of the Classic collapse.

When bad times came, there was little the Ku'hul Ajau could do to help their people. Monoculture farming, growing one staple food crop that could be accumulated and stored for hard times or for trade, could not be sustained in the rain forest. Instead, each city-state produced small quantities of many different food items, such as maize, beans, squash, and
cacao. There was enough, at least at first, to feed the kingdom, but little left over.

Meanwhile, Maya society was growing dangerously top heavy. Over time, elite polygamy and intermarriage among royal families swelled the ruling class. The lords demanded
jade, shells, feathers from the exotic Quetzal bird, fancy ceramics
, and other expensive ceremonial accoutrements to affirm their status in the Maya cosmos. A king who could not meet the requirements of his relatives risked alienating them.

Machaquilá Altar 2 destroyed in antiquity

The traditional rivalry among states only made matters worse. The  Ku'hul Ajau strove to outdo their neighbors, building bigger temples and more elegant palaces and staging more elaborate public pageants. All of this required more labor, which required larger populations and, perhaps, more wars to exact tribute in forced labor from fallen enemies. Overtaxed, the Maya political system began to falter.

The greatest rivalry of all helped propel the Classic Maya to their peak, and then tore their world apart. Beginning in the fifth century, the city-state of Tikal, expanded its influence, enlisting allies and vassal states in a swath southward through the Pasión River Valley, to Copán in what is now Honduras, and eastward up to Palenque. A century later a challenger arose: The northern city-state of Calakmul, in what is now Campeche,  forged an alliance of city-states throughout the Petén,  and east to what is now Belize. The two great alliances faced off in a rivalry that lasted more than 130 years.

This period marked the golden age of Classic Maya civilization. The  Ku'hul Ajau were in full flower in these two great alliances, competing in art and monuments as well as in frequent but limited
wars. Calakmul and Caracol, defeated Tikal in a major battle in 562 AD, but destroyed neither the city nor its population. Eventually Tikal rebounded and defeated Calakmul, leaded by
Hasaw Chan Kawi'l, subsequently building many of its most spectacular monuments, in the meantime, Naranjo a Tikal allied, defeated Caracol, for good, ca 700 AD.

Tikal, Temple I, Hasaw Chan Kawi´l's Tomb

Simon Martin, with Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn, compares the Tikal-Calakmul rivalry to the superpower struggle of the 20th century, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed to outdo each other in fields ranging from weaponry to space travel. With neither side ever able to gain the upper hand, the Cold War arguably brought stability, and so did the standoff in the Maya world. "There was a certain degree of destruction" because of the rivalry, says Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo. "But there was also equilibrium."

Tikal Central Plaza

The unraveling began at the small garrison state of Dos Pilas, near the Pasión River downstream of Cancuén.  In 630 Tikal, trying to reassert a presence along Pasión River trade routes increasingly dominated by Calakmul, expanded an existing outpost near two large springs, pilas, in Spanish. The site had little else to recommend it. Dos Pilas grew no crops and sold nothing. Scholars call it a "predator state" that depended on tribute from the surrounding countryside. War, for Dos Pilas, was not only a ritual to glorify kings and appease gods. War was what Dos Pilas did to survive. He went to war with Tamarindito, Ceibal and Itzán

The kingdom's history of violence and duplicity began when Tikal installed one of its princes,
Balaj Chan Kawiil, as Dos Pilas's ruler in 635. The garrison slapped together a fancy-looking capital for the young prince, using carved facades to mask loose and unstable construction fill. But in 658 Calakmul overran Dos Pilas and drove Balaj Chan Kawiil into exile.

We know the next chapter thanks to a thunderstorm that toppled a tree at Dos Pilas six years ago, exposing a carved stairway hidden beneath its roots. Inscriptions on the stairway reveal that Balaj Chan Kawiil returned two years after his exile, but as a Calakmul surrogate. Dos Pilas's turncoat king helped Calakmul cement its control over the Pasión Valley during the next two decades. Then Calakmul delivered fateful news. Its rulers ordered Balaj Chan Kawiil to fight his brother in Tikal itself.

In 679 he attacked his native city. "Mountains of skulls were piled up, and blood flowed," the stairway records. Balaj Chan Kawiil triumphed, and his brother died in the battle. The victory brought Calakmul to apogee and transformed Dos Pilas into the overlord of the Petexbatún, the southwestern part of the Petén.

Tikal survived, rebuilt, and less than 20 years later attacked and defeated Calakmul. Stucco sculpture at Tikal's central acropolis depicts a Calakmul noble awaiting sacrifice. It was a defeat from which Calakmul never fully recovered, but Tikal itself was never the same after the wars finally concluded. "Even though Tikal wins in the end," says the University of Pennsylvania's Robert Sharer, "it's never in shape to control everything."

What happened next is not entirely clear. Calakmul's power was broken, yet its allies, including Dos Pilas, continued to battle Tikal in Calakmul's name. Dos Pilas consolidated its hegemony in the
Petexbatún through alliances and war. Its rulers commissioned new monuments and built a second capital, Aguateca, and Punta de Chimino, the last Petexbatún  site to be abandoned.

But in 761 Dos Pilas's luck ran out. Former allies and vassals conquered the city and sent its ruler into exile. Dos Pilas would never be resettled, and with its obliteration the Maya world crossed a divide. Instead of reestablishing order, wars would create greater disorder; instead of one ruler emerging triumphant from a decisive battle, each conflict simply created more pretenders. Victories, instead of inspiring new monuments and temples, were transient and, increasingly, unremarked. Defeats spurred desperate citizens to rip apart their
ceremonial buildings, using the stones and fill to build redoubts in hopes of staving off future invaders. Cities no longer rebuilt and rebounded. They simply ceased to exist.

Dos Pilas recreation showing defensive wall
Dos Pilas, Showing Defensive wall (B), made with Main palace (D), and temples, Elite housing in central Plaza (E)

Smaller states tried to assert themselves in the spreading chaos, but none could. Instead, the warring states sought temporary advantage in a land of dwindling resources. The commoners probably hid, fled, or died.

For some time, fleeing nobles could find refuge in Cancuén, a quiet port at the headwaters of the Pasión River. Even as downriver cities sank into chaos during the eighth century, Cancuén prospered by trading luxury items and providing sumptuous lodgings for elite visitors. The architect of this golden age was
King Taj Chan Ahk, who came to power in 757 at the age of 15. Cancuén had a long history as a strategic trading post, but Taj Chan Ahk transformed the city into a stunning ceremonial center. Its heart was a 270,000-square-foot (25,000 square meters), three-story royal palace with vaulted ceilings and 11 courtyards, made of solid limestone and elegantly placed on a riverside promontory. It was a perfect stage for a Maya god-king, and Taj Chan Ahk was master of the role, even as it was dying out elsewhere.

There is no evidence that Taj Chan Ahk ever fought a war or even won a battle. Instead he managed to dominate the upper Pasión Valley for nearly 40 years by coaxing advantage through patronage and alliances. An altar monument at Cancuén dated 790 shows him in action, engaged in a ceremonial ball game with an
Machaquilá noble, perhaps to celebrate a treaty or a state visit.

Taj Chan Ahk died in 795 and was succeeded by his son Kan Maax
, who sought to trump his father by expanding the palace. But pomp and ritual—the old trappings of kingship—could no longer hold the Maya universe together. Within five years the spreading chaos had reached the gates of the city. In one terrible day its glory winked out, another light extinguished in the world of the Classic Maya.

One day in the year 800, the peaceful Maya city of Cancuén reaped the whirlwind. King Kan Maax must have known that trouble was coming, for he had tried to build makeshift breastworks at the approaches to his 200-room palace. He didn't finish in time.

The attackers quickly overran the outskirts of the city and streamed into
Cancuén's ritual heart. The speed of the attack is obvious even today. Unfinished construction projects lay in tumbled heaps. Half-carved stone monuments littered the pathways. Pots and bowls were strewn about the palace kitchen.

Cancuén: Broken Stelas

  The invaders took 31 hostages. The jewels and ornaments found with their remains marked them as nobles, perhaps members of Kan Maax's extended family or royal guests from stricken cities elsewhere. The captives included women and children; two of the women were pregnant.

  All were led to the ceremonial courtyard of the palace and systematically executed. The killers wielded spears and axes, impaling or decapitating their victims. They laid the corpses in the palace's cistern. Roughly 30 feet (nine meters) long and 10 feet (three meters) deep, it was lined with red stucco and fed by an underground spring. The bodies, accompanied by ceremonial garments and precious ornaments, fit easily. Kan Maax and his queen were not spared. They were buried a hundred yards (90 meters) away in two feet (0.6 meters) of construction fill intended for remodeling the palace. The king still wore his elaborate ceremonial headdress and a mother-of-pearl necklace identifying him as Holy Lord of Cancuén.

Cancuén Palace

  No one knows who the killers were or what they sought. Booty apparently did not interest them. Some 3,600 pieces of jade, including several Jade boulders, were left untouched; household goods in the palace and ceramics in Cancuén's giant kitchen were undisturbed. But to archaeologists who have dug up the evidence over the past several years, the invaders' message is clear. By depositing the bodies in the cistern, "they poisoned the well," says Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest. They also chipped the faces from all the carved stelas on Cancuén and pushed them over, facedown. "The site," says Demarest, "was ritually killed."

According to Arthur Demarest's work with the Petexbatún Regional Archaeological Project in the Dos Pilas area of Guatemala, the Mayan civilization began to chew upon itself. Evidence of quick fortification within once grand monumental areas indicates the terror that the people must have gone through to strive to maintain their once great civilization. Warrior kings not unlike some of today's dictatorial leaders, began to invade the city states with killing in mind. A lack of tradition and law-and-order began to cut at the morals of the citizens. Survival of the fittest began to set in. Preoccupation with war and neglect of their food sources signaled that there were too many chiefs (and their select clans) and too few Indians to work the lands. Social fragmentation began to tear at the bonds that had held people together for some 2000 years.



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