End of Mayan Empire
When the Spanish conquistadores sailed for Central America in 1517, their goal was to vanquish the resident Maya civilisation. But the colonists arrived to find that much of their work had been done for them.
By the time the Spanish made landfall, the Maya’s political and economic powerhouse has vanished
The Maya’s towering limestone cities – a classic feature of one of the ancient world’s most advanced societies – were already being reclaimed by the jungle.
The question of how the Maya met their end is one of history's most enduring mysteries. The Maya people survived; they even managed to stage a long resistance to European rule. But by the time the Spanish made landfall, the political and economic power which had erected the region's iconic pyramids, and had at one time sustained a population of some two million people, had vanished.
The first Maya sites were built during the first millennium BC, and the civilisation reached its height around AD600. (In the chronology of Mesoamerica, the Maya sit between the earlier Olmec and later Aztec civilisations). Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of ancient Maya cities, most of which are spread across southern Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Belize and Guatemala.
It’s likely that still more Maya ruins lie hidden beneath the region’s thick tropical forest.
The Maya had a strong grasp of mathematics and astronomy and used the only known written script in Mesoamerica
After about 200 years of serious archaeological study, we know enough about the Maya to be suitably impressed. Their distinctive art and architecture prove that these were master craftspeople.
The Maya were also intellectually advanced. They had a strong grasp of mathematics and astronomy, which they used to align their pyramids and temples with the precession of planets and the solar equinoxes. And they used the only known written script in Mesoamerica, a bizarre-looking set of characters known as Maya hieroglyphs.
The marvels the Maya left behind have earned them an enduring mystique. But the way the civilisation met its end is every bit as curious.
Let’s start with what we know. Around AD850, after centuries of prosperity and dominance, the Maya began to abandon their great cities, one after another. In less than 200 years, the civilisation had slumped to a fraction of its former glory. There would be later isolated resurgences, but the grandeur of the Maya’s heyday was gone forever.
Apart from its dramatic scale, what makes the Maya collapse so striking is that, despite decades of study, archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused it. As with the Roman Empire, there probably wasn’t one single culprit for the Maya’s downfall. But the nature of their decline leads some researchers to believe that the Maya civilisation fell victim to a major catastrophe – one able to topple city after city in its wake.
There are abundant theories about what finished off the Maya. There are the old favourites – invasion, civil war, collapsing trade routes – but ever since the first Central American ancient climate records were pieced together in the early 1990s, one theory has become particularly popular: that the Maya civilisation was ultimately doomed by a period of severe climate change.
In the centuries immediately before the Maya collapse – the so-called “Classical Age” between about AD250 and 800 – the civilisation boomed. Cities flourished and harvests were good. Climate records (which mostly come from the analysis of cave formations) show that during this time the Maya area had received relatively high rainfall. But the same records show that, starting in about AD820, the region was ravaged by 95 years of punctuated droughts, some of which lasted for decades.
Most of the Classic Maya cities fell between AD850 and 925 – largely coincident with a century of drought
Ever since these droughts were first identified, researchers have noticed a striking correlation between their timing and that of the Maya collapse: most of the Classic Maya cities fell between AD850 and 925 – largely coincident with the century of drought. And while a simple correlation isn’t enough to close the case, the tight fit between the droughts and the downfall leads many experts to believe that the 9th Century climate shift might somehow have caused the Maya’s demise.
But attractive as the drought explanation is, one piece of evidence has been standing in its way. Because, while most Maya cities declined as the climate dried, not all did.
This northern resurgence flies against the drought theory of the Maya’s demise
The Maya cities which fell during the 9th Century droughts were mostly located in the southern portion of their territory, in modern day Guatemala and Belize. In the Yucatan peninsula to the north, however, the Maya civilisation not only survived through these droughts, it then began to flourish.
While the southern Maya civilisation began to disintegrate, the north enjoyed relative prosperity, with the rise of a number of thriving urban centres. These included one of the greatest of all Maya cities, Chichen Itza (one of the world’s “New Seven Wonders”). This northern resurgence flies against the drought theory of the Maya’s demise: if the south was permanently crippled by the climate shift, critics argue, then why wasn’t the north?
Researchers have proposed various explanations for this north-south discrepancy, but so far no one theory has won out. Recently, however, a new discovery has gone some way towards resolving this enduring paradox.
Maya archaeologists find dating difficult. Almost none of the Maya’s written records, which once numbered in the thousands, survived past colonial times (on the order of Catholic priests, the Spanish burned Maya books wholesale - only four are now known to exist). Instead, to determine the times that ancient Maya cities thrived, researchers rely on calendar inscriptions on stone monuments, stylistic analysis of the Maya’s ornate ceramics, and radiocarbon dates from organic materials.
Evidently the north didn’t come through these droughts unscathed after all
Earlier studies had already determined the approximate ages of the main urban centres in the northern Maya civilisation; it was these that had revealed that the north had endured the 9th Century droughts. However until recently this haul of data had never been gathered together in a single study. Doing so is important, because it allows the northern Maya region to be viewed as a whole, helping researchers to identify overarching trends in its rise and fall.
Now, in a study published in December, archaeologists from the US and the UK have brought together for the first time all of the calculated ages for urban centres in the northern Maya lands. These comprise about 200 dates from sites across the Yucatan peninsula, half obtained from stone calendar inscriptions and half from radiocarbon dating. The researchers could then construct a broad picture of what times the northern Maya cities had been active, and the times when they each might have fallen into decline.
What the team found significantly changes our understanding of when, and perhaps even how the Maya civilisation met its end. Contrary to previous belief, the north had suffered a decline during a time of drought - in fact, it had suffered two of them.
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