Mayan Civilization Collapse: Archaeologists Find That Mayans Suffered Two Collapses

New archaeological evidence out of Guatemala suggests that the mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilization in 9th century was preceded by another collapse of lesser magnitude. The new findings have aided researchers in constructing the most accurate timeline yet of the Central American civilization, providing information to what may ultimately have led to the Mayan collapse.

UPI reported this week that archaeologists, using radiocarbon dating data to analyze 154 samples from the ancient Mayan Royal Palace of Ceibal, a site located in northern Guatemala’s Peten Department that was burned during what is known as the Classic Maya collapse, have put together a more detailed schedule of events that led up to that defining period. The survey of radiocarbon data shows what looks like ebbs and flows in the civilization’s population and construction. Most striking was evidence that there was a smaller collapse prior to the Classic occurrence but the size of the population and building construction that took place before and after each collapse were almost identical.

“What we found out is that those two cases of collapse — Classic and Preclassic — follow similar patterns,” Takeshi Inomata, lead study author and professor of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Arizona, said in a news release. “It’s not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse. First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.”

As before the survey, the archaeologists are still at a loss to explain exactly why the Mayan civilization suddenly disappeared. However, the new information will help clarify what led up to both collapses. In so doing, it could give other archaeologists something to look for at other archaeological sites and perhaps help in the establishment of a pattern that might eventually explain the Mayan Classic collapse.

The Nunnery, an example of Classic Period Mayan architecture
The Nunnery in Uxmal, Mexico, is from the Mayan Classic Period and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [Image by Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock]

The Classic Maya Period, a time period ranging from 250 CE to 900 CE, is considered, according to the MesoAmerican Research Center, as the height of Mayan civilization. It is marked primarily by dated monuments, stelae, and buildings using the Mayan Long Count Calendar. The fall-off in construction and the maintain of the cities, which followed the struggle for limited resources — a resource system that had sustained the Mayans for 15 centuries — and various internal conflicts, is seen as the end of the Classic Period. And while many Mayan cities and villages would grow and flourish (places like Chichen Itza would become a central power hub) after the end of the Classic Period, the Mayans would never again unite and control and build as they had prior to the 10th century CE.

It should also be pointed out that some archaeologists disagree with the term “collapse” in referring to what happened to the Mayan civilization. In fact, a 2007 article in the Journal of Archeological Research, it was argued that there no such widespread collapse as had been previously believed, although there were many instances of profound zonal change.

Mayan temple in ancient city of Chichen Itza
Ancient Mayan cities like Chichen Itza flourished through to the 13th century CE, well past the Classic Maya Period collapse (900 CE). [Image by Alexander Sviridov/Shutterstock]

The new survey study might be able to bring some clarification to the debate.

Study co-author Melissa Burham, an anthropology graduate students at Arizona, noted that it was “really, really interesting that these collapses both look very similar, at very different time periods. We now have a good understanding of what the process looked like, that potentially can serve as a template for other people to try to see if they have a similar pattern at their — archaeological — sites in the same area.”

According to the University of Arizona statement, Professor Inomata’s team’s work will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and will suggest that both indicated Mayan “collapses followed similar trajectories, with multiple waves of social instability, warfare and political crises leading to the rapid fall of many city centers.”

[Featured Image by chris kolaczan/Shutterstock]