Mayan civilization collapse
The Terminal Classic period in Mesoamerica between c. 800 and 925 CE saw one of the most dramatic civilization collapses in history. Within a century or so the flourishing Classic Maya civilization fell into a permanent decline, so that once great cities were abandoned and left to ruin, in many cases, to be reclaimed by the jungle and so disappear from human memory for centuries. Some northern Maya cities, conversely, prospered like never before in this period, as did the Maya along the Gulf Coast and central highlands of Mexico; however, for the majority of the Maya in the southern lowlands, the period was nothing short of disaster and, as the historian M.E. Coe describes, 'This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history'. The question, then, which has preoccupied scholars ever since the re-discovery in the 19th century CE of mysterious ruins built by, at the time, an equally mysterious civilization, is why did this happen? Below are some of the reasons presented by historians today as to just what caused such a dramatic reversal in fortunes.
Theory & Facts
Early in the study of the Maya collapse all manner of theories were presented as to what exactly had happened, some more plausible than others. Disease, a social revolution, drought, famine, foreign invasion, over-population, disruption in trade routes, earthquakes, and even hurricanes were held responsible. Unfortunately, the inscriptions left by the Maya themselves are strangely silent on the topic. To find the answer, then, we must reconstruct the past starting with what we do know. From the mid to late 8th century CE, relations between city-states deteriorated. There was a decline in trade and an increase in armed conflicts. We know that the death-rate increased in this period, and from 830 CE no new buildings were constructed in the central Maya area. As the Maya were fond of dates on their monuments and stelae, it is interesting to note that no dates after c. 910 CE are seen in the lowlands sites.
From the mid to late 8th century CE relations between city-states deteriorated. There was a decline in trade and an increase in armed conflicts.
We also have evidence of large areas becoming completely depopulated and royal dynasties and elites disappearing without trace. Finally, we can say that the collapse was neither unique - smaller scale abandonment of Maya cities had occurred several times before over the centuries - nor was it a sudden one but rather a process of decline which occurred over a period of 150 years between c. 760 and c. 910 CE. Such a slow decline would seem to cross off the list disease pandemics and natural disasters, like earthquakes, as factors in the collapse. Further, in both these cases populations tend to recover relatively quickly, whereas the Maya lowlands were never significantly re-populated.
Then we must also consider what we do not know about the Maya civilization, as different guesses and interpretations of these points can colour the reasons proposed for the collapse. We do not know with any great accuracy the population figures in the Late Classic period. Nor do we know exactly how the Maya farmed, how agricultural production was managed and controlled, or whether trade of this produce was local, regional, or even cross-cultural. These are the facts of the matter and the latest state of knowledge on the subject; now let us examine the various theories of how the Maya arrived at this situation.
What Causes Civilizations to Collapse?
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