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Scientists have long pondered the collapse of the Mayans. Having thrived for several years from A.D. 250 to 900, the sudden collapse had for nearly a century remained a mystery. Now, however, archaeologists have unearthed clues to help them get closer to solving this enigmatic mystery.
But before we can launch into the mysterious collapse, we need to articulate some clues. These clues are what the scientists look at to aim their searches. This, combined with a little bit of luck, enabled a few teams of researchers to finally piece together the most confounding collapse in history: the Mayan collapse.
The first clue to the Mayan collapse lies in the actual location of the cities that made up the society. These people lived off the most southeastern point of Mexico in the Yucatán Peninsula. The place maintained what climatologists and geologists refer to as a “tropical environment.”
In essence, what this means is that the summers would be very hot and humid, while the winters would be slightly less warm and wet. Safely ensconced in the jungle, the Maya would live off the easily workable land. And within what is today parts of Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, you will find some Mayan ancient ruins.
The Mayans believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe (geocentrism) and that all other celestial bodies circled around it. By tracking the movement of the stars and constellations, the Mayans were able to accurately foretell the wet season from the dry, and make decisions based off these predictions.
By knowing when the most rain would come, the Mayans could plant their crops such that they would gain the most yield. And with the most yield they could prepare themselves the most adequately for the next season. This would enable them to gather a surplus so food would never fall from plenty.
The crops the Mayans mainly relied on were maize. As a staple of their diet, this monocrop was both abundant and precarious. Much like today’s agribusiness, the strict reliance on staple crops brought with it a host of concerns. If the crops were to fail and the seasons to be dry, starvation might soon follow.
For this, the Mayans enlisted human sacrifice. Unfortunately for those they sacrificed, the scientific method didn’t exist. If it did, they would have been able to tell that the nice, wet weather wouldn’t change with the lopping off of some poor fellow’s head. Anyway, maize would provide for the Maya.
The Mayan civilization is often heralded as one of the more technologically advanced of the ancient civilizations. One of the strong remnants we have of their temporary reign lies in the ruins they left behind. We find these scattered all across the Yucatán Peninsula and the area surrounding it.
Tulum, for instance, is one of the more popular tourist destinations off the eastern portion of the peninsula. Here, you’ll find an ancient tower peering over the coastal lands and into the sea. But more inland and to the west you will find other archaeological sites as well. These sites tower over the jungle beneath, showing a glimpse of what the civilization was at its peak.
The collapse of the Mayan civilization was stark and cold. From the years of A.D. 800 to 1000, the society would drastically diminish in size down to 2 million, and then to something around 70% smaller. This completely devastating shrinkage was enough to destroy what once was the great Maya.
For centuries, however, scientists have tried to capture what exactly had happened to trigger this collapse. Among the potential options that these researchers have gleaned included everything from extreme drought to overpopulation. It wasn’t until recently, however, that evidence was unearthed that was strong enough to dethrone all previous explanations.
Recently, archaeologists working in the Yucatán area unearthed strong evidence that took these researchers by surprise. Their evidence started at an ancient lake. Lake Chichancanab, to be exact. This provided strong clues that everything previously hypothesized about the conspicuous collapse was wildly askew.
OK, not really. But it did help to reshape how the scientists approached the problem. The scientists gathered data on the ancient lake by looking at sediment cores. Ultimately, they dug deep into the ground to assess ancient levels of humidity and heat. When these scientists looked into this data, they found something deeply unexpected. Some might even say disturbing.
Lake Chichancanab is just a handful of miles west of Cancún. The lake, as scientists have increasing begun to realize, holds the secrets to the ancient and mysterious Mayan collapse. To gain access to the lake’s ancient secrets, archaeologists have to dig deep — literally. By analyzing the sediment that lays beneath the current lake, they reach into the sediment of the past.
This ancient sediment can then be read to assess many things about the climate in which that sediment used to exist. Primarily, these scientists looked at how the lake changed with time. Did it shrink? Did it expand? What sorts of clues could the scientists gather by looking into the limpid waters of Lake Chichancanab?
A changing climate
Something happened immediately prior to the Mayan collapse that scientists thought might have played an encouraging role. This something was a little bit of change in the climate. And when changes happen in the tropics, they can be severe and deadly. The Mayans, as it turns out, might have learned this the hard way.
At around A.D. 800 in the area surrounding the Yucatán, climatic conditions began to shift. This became what geologists now refer to as the “Medieval Warm Period.” This temporary shift in climatic conditions would spell much change for the societies it affected. But just exactly how would these changes affect the Mayans?
The Medieval Warm Period didn’t affect all parts of the globe equally. In fact, it was not ubiquitously warm — as a whole, the atmosphere was cooler. However, where the medieval period did hit, there was measurable warmth. This warmth ranged from subtle increases in regional temperature to drastic dry spells and arid desert.
Ultimately, it changed the environment in which the Maya made their living. In total, it shifted their once-lush tropical lifestyle into one that was seasonally drier. Because of this, the crops on which they relied became more variable and grew less predictably. When you rely on one staple crop as the foundation of your livelihood, this can be a problem.
Deforestation is a common and severe problem. When one clears sections of the forest, as the Mayans did to make room for their burgeoning society, the soil upon which those trees once grew becomes unstable. No longer does it maintain a nutrient-rich bounty for the other plants (i.e., maize) that one would want to grow there.
If the soil becomes implacably unwilling to foster other plants, it will be hard to continue living there. However, the Mayans had no other place to go. In essence, they were stuck with whatever plot of land they were afforded. And, if they messed with this land, they would only have the abilities at hand to try and fix the problems.
A world without forests
When you look at why the Mayans cut down all their greenery, the reasoning makes sense: The population was growing, so to make room for people, they had to free up the amount of livable space. And, in case you were unaware, living within the jungle bush isn’t exactly easy. Outcroppings and clearings, then, became common and ubiquitous.
Another reason for the clearings, however, was to support the actual feeding of this growing population. Because the Mayans had a staple crop of maize, they had to farm constantly. And since this maize was the main dietary feature of Mayan culture, they needed more room for more maize to ensure that everyone would remain fed. To fell the trees, then, was to clear more space for crops.
To try and cope with these slowly unfolding changes, the Mayans implemented a number of strategies. One of the more famous of these was to sacrifice people — primarily young boys. While the old belief among archaeologists was that young virgin women would be sacrificed, recent evidence suggests a different picture.
Regardless of who was sacrificed, the why was clear: Bring back the rain that once made it easy to live. Unfortunately for the Mayans (and the people they ended up sacrificing), the deaths of the young boys would bring little rain. When boys are cast into water-filled caverns — called cenotes — it doesn’t do much to alter the amount of water vapor you’ll find in the atmosphere.
Scientists have long known, however, that such changes took place. Still, there has been a substantial debate over whether this change in climate would be the final nail in the coffin for the Mayan collapse. Other strong contenders for the downfall might have been everything from aliens to overpopulation.
These theories, while not definitive, help to contextualize the findings these most recent scientists found in the ancient lake. But to get to these findings and their ultimate conclusion, we have to know how the Mayans responded to such changes. After all, the group was one of the most advanced civilizations of their time. You would expect, then, some resiliency to the shifting climate.
The picture scientists had gleaned by this point was that there may have been multiple reasons that the Mayans were suffering: population stress, a lack of dark greenery, and an aberration in weather that brought warmer weather and less annual rainfall. Together, these conditions combined to create a somewhat inhospitable environment for the once-flourishing Maya.
But were these conditions enough to push the Mayan civilization, one of the most ingenious of the time, beyond the brink of social stability into one of struggle and debasement? These are the answers that this most recent batch of scientists tried to gather at the bottom of Lake Chichancanab.
When these scientists analyzed their most recent batch of sediment cores, what they found was astounding. In so many words, they found a smoking gun of sorts. In these ancient sediments the group had found that humidity levels in the area had drastically reduced. What once was an area of ample rainfall, then, had developed something of a paucity.
What their data suggests is that over the few-decades-long period that the Maya began to collapse, there was a precipitous drop in annual rainfall by an average of around 50%. During some years, it was recorded to be around 70%. What this drastic drop in precipitation entails is that the growing of crops would grow profoundly more difficult.
Without a reliable source of rain, the ability to sustain a functional source of food became next to impossible. The consensus is that this localized and severe drought was enough to wildly discombobulate the Mayan society. Many thousands had likely migrated elsewhere, and many thousands more likely didn’t continue their genetic line.
Ultimately, the results were that many could no longer maintain life in the area they once called home. This wasn’t the end of the Mayan tale, however. Many decades later, the land would once again open up to new arms. And from here, a society would thrive until the likes of Cortés and Spanish colonialism took seed. This group was the Aztecs.
When the Mayan civilization had collapsed, the land they left was not in good shape. The land had almost no foliage and the soil was robbed of its life-giving nutrients. The conditions wouldn’t return to their once-lush state for a while. They would, however, return. This would create the conditions that eventually brought the next large society of Mexico: the Aztecs.
Scientists, however, in an attempt to better establish the connection between green plants and the atmosphere’s warmth, conducted some studies to see what would happen once the plants grew back. What they found was that the conditions would restore (and in fact did) to their previous condition. All it would take is time.
Regrowth and sustenance
In an analysis of the land the Mayans left barren, scientists found that once the dark-green plants were replaced, there was no longer the shift toward the warm. Ultimately, the green of the plants enabled more warmth to be absorbed, more water vapor to be released, and more rain to replenish the entire cycle multiple times over. The result was more lush land.
Once the land was replenished to its previous state, it was once again hospitable to human entry. It wasn’t until the 14th century, however, that any of these changes would take place. But once the land was once again habitable, the same mistakes wouldn’t be made. The Aztecs only reigned for a short time. And the Spaniards would introduce a new way of life that wasn’t so reliant on the vicissitudes of monocrops.
To comprehend the sheer magnitude of the Mayan civilization, many factors must be accounted for. Some studies, for instance, suggest that even the burning of wood to build their limestone towers and monuments would take dozens of trees. These same studies estimate that took something around 20 trees per meter of living space.
To give you an idea of exactly what that entails, just imagine a football-length field. In meters, that’s about 48.5 meters. If every meter of this field takes 20 trees, a football field-sized plot of land would take around 970 trees. That’s a large number of trees. And, to make matters worse, it’s estimated that the amount of land the Mayans would usurp would span from the Yucatán all the way south to Guatemala. That’s much more than a few football fields.
Considering the Mayan collapse, it is important to assess what the society had developed in its few hundred years of strength. One of the greatest of these achievements was writing. Not all societies, for instance, have developed written language. It has only been a handful. This development makes the Mayans all the more important as a historic group.
This writing, it is hypothesized, was used as a way to communicate payment and religious practice. And with writing, the development of society can compound upon itself, learning from the societies that came earlier. This is what the Mayans did. It wasn’t, however, enough to save them from their ultimate demise. It looks like we need more than writing to propel us deeply into the future.
The Mayans had another striking development that made them unique from their other societal peers. This was the advent and sharpening of their mathematics. While simple relative to what would come elsewhere, their mathematics was enough to enable them to build the major monuments that they did.
Moreover, their math was enough to develop a nascent version of Mayan astronomy. With such acumen, the Mayans were able to develop a robust and thriving society. Still, however, the ability was not enough to keep them from plowing and destroying the land. With this, they had to suffer the unintended and quite severe consequences.
What’s most amazing to contemplate is that the once-imposing capital cities like Tikal became immediately desolate after the collapse. These once-thriving metropolises lost nearly all of their importance and constituents. So what once used to be an area of major salience in the empire became abandoned and insignificant.
To imagine such beautiful structures — which, to be certain, meant a whole lot to those of the Mayan civilization — abandoned and derelict, is quite the situation to contemplate. It’s almost as if you’ve stumbled across the Empire State Building empty and bedraggled by time. These aren’t necessarily things you’d expect from a once-thriving civilization.
The terminal period
The terminal period of the Mayan civilization is when it finally made its last strokes from the thriving society that it was. From here, it was nothing but downhill. Populations migrated, the metropolis declined, and, ultimately, the boom and bustle of the dwindling city turned into a dim and fading light of what it once was.
While many have speculated about what the origins of this decline were, scientists now have extraordinary evidence that the reason was drought. This drought, once combined with deforestation, created a horrid concoction of dehydration that dried the flora and fauna that called the Yucatán home. And once this happened, the Maya were done.