The downfall of the Ancient Maya: The story of how the Mayans left their advanced limestone cities

Fareeha Arshad

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Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

In times past, the European colonists were out in the sea, always looking for new places to uncover, new lands to conquer, and new wealth to win. During such searches, they were sometimes successful in finding new lands to colonize. But, sometimes, they discovered abandoned lands with nobody to look after — like the Maya civilization that collapsed a long time before their arrival.

The Maya civilization

At its peak, the Maya society boasted unparalleled giant limestone cities, making them one of the most advanced civilizations. Located in Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico, these sites were first built during the first millennium B.C.

Most of the population were skilled artisans and masters of craftsmanship, making them highly intelligent. Not just that, the Mayans contributed to languages, science, and mathematics. This was seen in the precision with which they aligned their pyramids and temples. The carvings in Maya hieroglyphics on these structures also bear testimony to their rich history.

The fall of the ancient society

From 850 A.D., the Mayans started abandoning these cities. Within a few centuries, a fraction of the original population remained here. A natural or otherwise disaster would have forced people to abandon these great cities in succession. Or perhaps, like the present, the Maya cities were victims of climate change. For over a century after 820 A.D., the cities experienced droughts that lasted for decades. However, not all Maya cities endured this.

There were few cities in the Yucatan peninsula in the north, like Chichen Itza, and though they did experience drought, they didn’t completely collapse. Instead, newer city centres were formed in these areas that, contributed to their prosperity. However, like the southern cities, these northern cities also started succumbing to the aftermath effects of drought. So, between 1000 A.D. and 1075 A.D., construction activities seemed to have drastically dropped. Fewer buildings were constructed during this period, and even less stone carving took place.

Only a handful of cities, like the northern city of Mayapan, continued to flourish after the drought between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, these cities brought little prosperity owing to their small size. As a result, none of these cities successfully restored the Classic Maya society to its former glory.

Another theory put forward by historians is the possible internal conflict between these cities. As the drought worsened, possibly, the towns fought among themselves for the depleting resources. Eventually, with worsening climatic conditions and little or no food to eat, the remaining people started leaving their homes in 1050 A.D. They headed towards the Caribbean coast and other surrounding areas near water bodies.

Or perhaps, their growing population could have led to their ultimate downfall. To allow habitable conditions for their people, they must have cleared vast areas of forests and produced new arable lands to feed them. This would have indirectly caused the prolongation of drought and the eventual demise of the great civilization.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State
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