Why did the Mayan civilization collapse?


The Mayans have lived in Central America and the Yucatán Peninsula since at least 1800 BC and have thrived in the region for thousands of years. According to countless studies, the Mayan civilization collapsed between AD 800 and AD 1000.

So why did the Mayan civilization collapse, and can you even call it a “collapse”?

To begin with, the Maya are still there today. “It was the Mayan political system that collapsed, no [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 more than 7 million Mayans living today in Central America and beyond bear witness to this.

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The ancient Mayans did not have a central ruler, like an emperor in ancient Rome, and were not unified into one state. Instead, the ancient Mayan civilization consisted of many small states, each centered around a city. While these city-states shared cultural and religious similarities, they each had their own local rulers, some more powerful than others. There has not been a single collapse for these regimes; rather, a number of Mayan cities rose and fell at different times, some during this 800 to 1000 period, and others afterwards, according to scholars. For example, while parts of southern Mesoamerica, such as Tikal in what is now Guatemala, which declined in the 8th and 9th centuries due to environmental problems and political unrest, populations increased in other regions, such as Chichen Itza, on what is now the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula, academics said.

“The collapse is not a term that should be universally applied to the ‘Mayans, neither should they be referred to as a single term,” Marilyn Masson, professor and president of anthropology at the University of Albany, State University of New York, Live Science told Live Science in an email. “The Mayan region was large, with many policies and environments, and several languages ​​were spoken in the Mayan family.”

When Chichén Itzá declined, largely due to a long drought in the 11th century, another city on the Yucatán Peninsula called Mayapán began to flourish. “Mayapan had lords, priests, hundreds of religious hieroglyphic books, complex astronomy, and a pantheon of deities,” Masson said. “Much of what we know about the earlier Mayan religion comes from books written during the Mayapan era and from descendant populations who encountered and survived European contact.”

While Mayapán was declining before contact with Europeans, in part because of the war, another site on the Yucatán Peninsula called Ti’ho was developing by the time the Europeans arrived, Masson said.

The Mayan states continued to exist even after the region was ravaged by war and disease brought on by European conquests in Central America. “We must always remember that the last Mayan state, Nojpetén, did not fall until 1697 – quite recent,” said Guy Middleton, visiting scholar at the School of History, Classics and Archeology at Newcastle University in the United States. UK.

Why did they fall?

A mixture of political and environmental issues are generally blamed for the decline of the Mayan cities.

Speleothem analysis, or rock structures in caves such as stalactites and stalagmites, shows that “several severe – multi-year – droughts have struck between [A.D.] 800 and 930 “in the southern region of Mesoamerica, Lucero said.” And since the most powerful Mayan kings have relied on urban reservoirs to attract farmers / subjects during the annual dry season to access the drinking water, decreased rainfall resulted in lower water levels, crops failed and kings lost their means of power.

Related: Why does the rain give off that cool, earthy smell?

The fact that Mayan rulers often tied their own powers to deities created more political problems. The problems the Mayans suffered from the droughts “caused people to lose faith in their rulers, which is more than just a loss of confidence in government when your rulers are closely tied to gods,” Justine said. Shaw, professor of anthropology at the College of the Redwoods. in California. The droughts, combined with political unrest, would also have disrupted agriculture, the maintenance of water storage systems and resulted in the Mayan rulers wasting resources on the war, Shaw said.

Lucero noted that some Mayan areas have experienced deforestation and that lower water levels have made it more difficult to trade goods. “Less rainfall has likely impacted the canoe trade as water levels drop noticeably with each dry season – so less rain meant less canoe trips,” Lucero said.

However, a “collapse” in one area could be a period 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 a lot of its occupants,” Shaw said. The reasons why Cochuah exploded and collapsed are currently being investigated.

This pattern of decline in one region and growth in another continued throughout the European conflict with the Mayan cities. Political and environmental problems often led to the decline of one area, while another area grew larger, perhaps because it did not suffer as much from these problems.

Modern maya

After the Spanish conquest of the last Mayan state in 1697, the Mayan people continued, experiencing discrimination and sometimes revolting against Spain and the governments that came to power after the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1821. ” The Mayans suffered terribly, but periodically rebelled, without success; they still don’t have adequate political representation in the countries where they live, ”Middleton told Live Science.

“It’s really important to get the message across that although classic Mayan cities and states have collapsed and culture has transformed, the Mayans have by no means disappeared,” Middleton said, adding that “we should pay attention to the history, state and status of the descendant Mayan population in Mesoamerica now. ”

Originally posted on Live Science.


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