The Maya have lived in Central America and the Yucatán Peninsula since at least 1800 B.C. and flourished in the region for thousands of years. According to countless studies, the Maya civilization collapsed between A.D. 800 and 1000. But though the term "Maya collapse" brings up images of ruins overgrown with forests and of an ancient civilization whose cities fell and were abandoned, the reality is far more complex.
So, why did the Maya civilization collapse, and can you even call it a "collapse"?
For starters, the Maya are still here today. "It was the Maya political system that collapsed, not [their] society," Lisa Lucero, professor of anthropology and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Live Science in an email. "The over 7 million Maya living today in Central America and beyond attest to this fact."
The ancient Maya didn't have one central leader, like an emperor in ancient Rome, and were not unified into a single state. Instead, the ancient Maya civilization consisted of numerous small states, each centered around a city. While these city states shared similarities in culture and 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 and fell at different times, some within that 800 to 1000 time period, and some afterward, according to scholars. For example, while areas in southern Mesoamerica, such as Tikal in what is now Guatemala, declined in the eighth and ninth centuries due to environmental problems and political turmoil, populations rose in other areas, such as Chichén Itzá, on what is now the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula, scholars said.
"Collapse is not a term that should be universally applied to 'the' Maya, who should not be referred to as a single term either," Marilyn Masson, a professor and chair of anthropology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told Live Science in an email. "The Maya region was large, with many polities and environments, and multiple languages were spoken in the Maya family."
When Chichén Itzá declined, largely because of a lengthy drought during the 11th century, another Yucatán Peninsula city, called Mayapán, started to thrive. "Mayapan had lords, priests, hundreds of religious hieroglyphic books, complex astronomy and 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 and survived European contact."
While Mayapán declined prior to European contact, partly due to warfare, another Yucatán 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 and disease brought about by the 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 the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University in the U.K.
Why did they fall?
A mix of political and environmental problems is usually blamed for the decline of Maya cities.
Analysis of speleothems, or rock structures in caves such as stalactites and stalagmites, shows that "several severe — multi-year — droughts struck between [A.D.] 800 and 930" in the southern Mesoamerica region, Lucero said. "And since the most powerful Maya kings relied on urban reservoirs to draw in farmers/subjects during the annual dry season for access to clean drinking water, decreasing rainfall meant water levels dropped, crops failed and 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 problems the 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 the College of the Redwoods in California. The droughts, combined with political turmoil, would have also 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, and lower water levels made it harder to trade goods. "Less rainfall likely impacted canoe trade since water levels noticeably drop each dry season — so less rain meant less canoe travel," Lucero said.
However, a "collapse" in one area could be a time of "boom" in another. The Cochuah region on the Yucatán Peninsula thrived during the Terminal Classic [800 to 930] after much of the south was depopulated due to drought and political conflict. "But it, too, eventually lost much of its occupants," Shaw said. The reasons why Cochuah boomed and collapsed are currently being investigated.
This pattern of decline in one area and growth in another continued through the time of European conflict with Maya cities. Political and environmental problems often led to the decline of one area, while another area grew possibly because they were not suffering as badly from these problems.
After the last Maya state was conquered by the Spanish in 1697, the Maya people continued on, enduring discrimination and at times revolting against Spain and the 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 told Live Science.
"It is really important to get the message out there that though classic Maya cities and states did collapse, and culture did transform, the Maya in no way disappeared," said Middleton, adding that "we should pay attention to the story, the state and status of the Maya descendent population in Mesoamerica now."
Originally published on Live Science.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.