The Reason Why the Ancient Maya Civilization Collapsed Should Serve as a Warning to Us

In their new study, researchers explore the possibility that climate change played a big part in the collapse of the ancient Maya.
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One of the most puzzling mysteries of ancient history has long been the reason behind the collapse of the Ancient Maya. In the 13th and 14th centuries CE, Mayapan served as the political and cultural center for the Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula. The remarkably sophisticated civilization of over 19 million people suddenly collapsed sometime during the 8th or 9th centuries. For about a century, dozens of central urban centers in the lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, including Tikal, transformed from thriving towns to deserted ruins.

Scholars and history enthusiasts have proposed countless theories accounting for the collapse, ranging from the plausible (foreign invasion, overhunting, peasant revolt) to the absurd (supernatural forces, alien invasion). But a new study has given an intriguing insight into what triggered the collapse of the Ancient Maya. The scientists peered back through 800 years of the history of Mayapan. To learn more about the local ecology at the time of abandonment, they examined archaeological data from all across the Yucatan.

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Mayan mural from Tikal by ENRICO FERORELLI, DOUG STERN

They developed a computer model of deforestation in the Yucatan and ran simulations to examine how this would affect rainfall. The scientists used population records and measurements from currently forested and cleared lands in the area.


What the scientists found

Around the time, the researchers discovered a rapid rate of deforestation was followed by severe reductions in rainfall, as the Mayans burned and chopped down increasingly more forests to prepare land for agriculture. Interestingly, they needed a lot of wood to fuel the fires that baked the lime plaster for their intricate structures. According to experts, it would take about 20 trees to produce just a single square meter (10,7 square feet) of the cityscape.

There were correlations between increasing rainfall and local population growth as well as between future rainfall drops and escalating violence. Mayapan was probably abandoned between 1400 and 1450 CE due to a protracted drought, according to archaeologists. According to the study, the Maya people would have been under stress because the shortage of water would have had an impact on farming methods and commerce routes. People either died or dispersed as food became more scarce and the situation became more perilous.

The researchers then proposed that the drought might have been to blame for the collapse. They explained that the drought would have caused civil unrest, which would have resulted in political collapse, and that the Maya people would have fled to smaller, safer villages.

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Stela D, ancient Maya archaeological site of Quirigua, 1922 by H. Schmelzer

“Multiple data sources suggest that civic violence grew dramatically between 1400 and 1450 CE, and generalized linear modeling correlates strife in the city with drought conditions,” writes the researchers in their paper published in Nature Communications.

The new study not only provides a useful insight into the history of these ancient people but also issues a warning about the difficulties that climatic changes can place on even the well-established and successful civilizations.

“We argue that persistent drought increased tensions between rival factions, but subsequent changes show endurance on a regional level, ensuring that Maya political and economic systems endured until European encounters in the early 16th century CE,” the authors write.


Analysis of human remains

The researchers already had a wealth of historical data at their disposal, including records on population growth, modern diets, and climatic conditions. A further examination of human remains for evidence of traumatic injury was added to the records (pointing to conflict). Many of the corpses found in the final mass grave dug before the city was abandoned, according to the researchers, likely belonged to family members of the Cocoms (the heads of state), who met a terrible end due to feuding factions and societal turmoil. 

“What we found agrees with the widely held belief on the institutional collapse of Mayapan between 1441 and 1461 CE. This is a result of civil war fueled by political competition and ambition, ingrained in the social memory of Yucatecan people whose testimony was recorded in the early Colonial period,” write the researchers.”

Human response to environmental pressures

There are numerous aspects to consider and balance when attempting to understand why a historical population behaved in the manner that it did. Human responses to environmental constraints like drought are undoubtedly complicated, differing by region and by century.


After Mayapan’s downfall, migration to other parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, particularly wealthy coastal towns and politically free villages, enabled the Maya culture to survive. Nevertheless, there was little evidence of warfare between these areas before the arrival of the Spanish.

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Mayapan by Pavel Vorobiev under CC BY-SA 3.0

The researchers claim that this is evidence of a “resilient system of human-environmental adaptations,” but adaptations can only go so far. These same areas are now again dealing with a climate crisis along with the rest of the planet. The researchers conclude that historical and archaeological records “are well suited for assessing past societal repercussions of climate crises across long-term cycles.”

“The Maya region has the depth and breadth of historical, archaeological, and climatic data necessary for evaluating the connections between changing weather patterns and societal change.”


Researcher’s conclusions

Climate modeler Robert Oglesby of the University of Nebraska, who collaborated on the research, says one of the conclusions of the complementary studies is that human alteration of the environment frequently has unforeseen consequences—and we may not be aware of them until it is too late.
We can even use Guatemala, another area where the ancient Maya inhabited and is currently experiencing rapid deforestation, as a modern-day example. The country of Guatemala is undergoing “a great amount of transformation,” according to Oglesby. They might be even more at risk from a severe drought.

Featured image: Mayapan Ruins – Yucatan 2017 06.jpg by Travel4Brews under CC BY 2.0