Abandoned Cities of the Maya: A Cautionary Tale of Collapse

It’s hard not to be impressed by the Maya and their accomplishments. At its peak, the culture consisted of 40 city-states, and was the New World’s most advanced Native American civilization. But somehow, the cities contained the seeds of their destruction, because each and every one gradually fell into decline and was ultimately abandoned to be overgrown by an unrelenting jungle. 

Today, marvelous white pyramids and palaces welcome tourists, but the mystery remains … why?

Over their three-thousand year history, and long before Europeans arrived, the Maya:

  • Developed innovative farming techniques 
  • Invented a complex hieroglyphic writing system
  • Traded extensively
  • Managed water resources
  • Measured and charted the heavens
  • Developed a calendar. 

And most importantly, at the behest of omnipotent kings, skilled architects designed and built large, impressive capital cities which formed the heart of their domain.

10 Things You Might Not Know About The Maya

Time Takes a Toll

It’s a misconception to believe that the collapse happened quickly, nor is it accurate that the cities were all deserted at the same time. The fortunes of Maya cities rose and fell over time and in different territories, but in the end, all the towns were deserted and the indigenous population scattered to the countryside for survival. 

Mesa Verde’s Ancient Puebloans: Living on the Edge … Then Not

Each failure and abandonment probably had a unique fingerprint, and there isn’t agreement between archaeologists on exactly what happened, but in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, author Jared Diamond attributes it to some combination of environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, changes in trade, and a total disregard for environmental problems. (Sound familiar?)

One aspect that almost all experts agree lead to the decline was environmental damage, which ultimately, was precipitated by overpopulation. It was a case of cause and effect as well as unintended consequences.

The Domino Effect of Overpopulation

Inventive farmers learned new, more effective techniques which resulted in more food production. With the availability of abundant food supplies the population increased, which in turn created the need for even more food.

At some point the amount of arable land had to increase so forests were cut, and hillsides cleared, resulting in erosion problems further reducing land for cultivation. Archaeologist David Webber summed it up well: 

“There were too many farmers growing too many crops on too much landscape.”

The weather in this part of the world is known for wet/dry cycles and like most agrarian societies the Maya adapted to this normal ebb and flow of rainfall. But an analysis of lakebed core samples showed scientists that around 750 A.D. the worst drought in 7,000 years began and lasted over 50 years. Imagine a drought that continues for five decades! Many archaeologists see this as the beginning of the end for the Maya. 

The Maya Turn on Each Other

So faced with diminishing resources and relentless drought, what’s to be done? Will you starve or forcibly take land and food from your neighbors? Michael Coe and Stephen Houston answer this question in their authoritative book The Maya – “Endemic Internecine Warfare.” 

Bonampak Mural Depicting Maya Warfare

Neither side can afford it and it’s disastrous for everyone, but there seems no other solution. And as is frequently the case with war, in the long term it does more harm than good. 

* * *

Ruins are a window into the society and their way of life, but for all their monumental palaces, restored Maya cities raise as many questions as they answer. Did they realize their society was collapsing and were they unwilling to make changes, or was it a creeping decay that everyone slowly became accustomed to and accepted? One certainty is that we’ll never know.

But, are there parallels today? … You bet there are. Science deniers actively campaign to contradict global warming, world leaders persist with geopolitical squabbles that do nothing but maintain the status quo, and politicians faced with tough, unpopular choices just “kick the can” to ensure their re-election.

There’s no denying there are lessons in the past, and it may be time we started paying closer attention. Just look at the Maya.

Happy Trails, James & Terri

Photo Credits: 10. Jesse Gardner 11. El Comandante  13. Marv Watson 

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

49 thoughts

  1. The disappearance of past civilisations is so interesting with so many unknowns. Such great ruins that were left behind by them- can’t say I would be that proud of our ruins that we would leave behind! Love the last lizard shot.

    1. Thanks for the comment Sophie and for dropping by the blog. Anytime I see an abandoned, ivy-covered building on a woodland hike, it gets me to thinking about what we’d leave behind and how much energy it actually takes to keep Mother Nature at bay. And in these days of stone facades vs. Maya-style solid stone, I’m not sure that much would survive anyway. It’s certainly an interesting mental exercise though. ~James

  2. Great poets have long stressed the folly of thinking anything can be permanent. And it is not a novel thought to think the U.S. might be following the pattern of Rome declining from an outward looking republic to a self-centered dictatorship to be ultimately destroyed by an environmental factor – the Goths destroying the aqueducts.
    You have highlighted the folly, and about all we can do as individuals is try to make sure our own actions don’t contribute to the decline.

    1. Ray, I have to think that many people visiting these ruins have in the back of their mind: “Could this happen to us?” And despite what we may believe about being more modern and smarter, all we need to do is look at cities like Detroit, Michigan for the answer to that question.

      I’m a geologist by training and have done lots of reading about extinction events in earth’s history. But it doesn’t take a geologist looking at the fossil record to realize the devastating effects that high levels of CO2 have had in these extinction events. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but if something isn’t done on a global scale there’s going to be a high price to pay. And the recent trend of denying the science of global warming not only astounds me, it also frightens me. ~James

      1. After reading your posts, I am not surprised to hear you are a geologist by training. Alie and I, have often said we would be interested in learning more about the subject after seeing so many remarkable things. But local universities – at least up to now – have not offered anything for the dilettante.

  3. James and Terri – You are making life’s ruins quite inviting. If only we could all learn from what we do know about past societies. On the happier side, I see a University of Texas ‘T’ and a wonderful lizard survived. So, there’s some hope 😉 – Susan

    1. Susan, the older I get the more often I seem to think: “Will we never learn?” Our selective belief in climate (and medical) science astounds me, and I just hope that we’re on the cusp of a change that will get us back to where we were 4 years ago.

      As for the Texas “T,” you might notice a comment from our blogging buddy Rusha who had the same thought … except she lives in Knoxville. I’ll let you guys sort that one out. 🙂 ~James

  4. I’m wondering if this decline isn’t a natural course of events? We do not go on forever and neither would our societies. Perhaps the longer lived cultures have had more right in its development than others. But, then again, success can create over population and decline sets in. Interesting to ponder.

    1. Leslie, it is interesting to ponder your idea that the rise and fall of cultures is a natural occurrence. From the first Sumerian City to the recent past, there are ruins of cultures all over the globe that have followed a similar pattern of a rise to success followed by a decline and eventual failure.

      And there’s a good reason that demographers are raising red flags about world population. Science has made huge strides with farming techniques and increasing the food supply, but all the domino-effect environmental impacts keep reminding us that “there’s no free lunch.” ~James

      1. Leslie, it’s interesting that you say that. In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” author Jared Diamond proposes that one of the reasons that some societies succeeded and became dominate was because over the generations they developed resistance to deadly viruses. And these were viruses they contracted from domesticated farm animals. These viruses jumped from an animal species to humans, like Coronavirus. ~James

  5. As always, your information is as rich as the pictures. And the rationale for the end of this civilization seems sound — overpopulation. Too sad.
    As for these photos — all are great. But living in Big Orange Country makes me fall in love with the T photo!!! Just saying.

    1. Thanks Rusha. It seems to be a part of the human condition that in times of plenty the population increases – which makes logical sense. But in ancient cultures, part of the reality was that when food supplies became scarce the opposite happened. And in this part of the world, on the surface it appears that with lots of sunshine and water, anything will grow in abundance. But what the disappearance of the Maya shows is that just because you can grow an excess, doesn’t mean that you should.

      As for the T, Susan and her friends from the Great State of Texas may take exception to you idea. 🙂 ~James

  6. Let’s hope that November 3rd brings about a change so that America will once again embrace science and become a leader in conservation of our precious resources.


  7. The comparison of situations then and now is a bit stomach turning I have to say. We find ourselves open jawed these days at what science deniers are spewing. Here’s hoping a big change is coming. I can barely stand to watch.

    1. On this side of the border we’re hoping for a change as well Sue – you can’t imagine how badly.

      As a scientist myself, I’m aware that there’s always bad scientific data as well as faulty interpretations floating around. But, the idea of just discounting any science that doesn’t happen to benefit your personal cause is astounding to me. And it also scares me that this road we’re traveling is going to be a hard one to reverse on. Anyway, big fingers crossed here. Hope you both are well. ~James

  8. Oh this sounds all too familiar, but it’s wishful thinking to think we’ll learn from the past (and likely too late) when the vast majority of people don’t know what happened in the past. History is for a hand full of history buffs, especially these days. Sigh. Oh well onwards we go. Change will come, inevitably. I’m actually quite optimistic about it. Live the lizard. Great shot.

    1. Alison, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about travel is that it inspires me to learn more, not only about other cultures around the world but also their histories. It reinforces our common humanity, and in many cases illuminates the same mistakes that we all seem to make over and over; all of which helps me personally looking forward. ~James

  9. Sometimes I feel that history does keep repeating itself as we humans do the same mistakes over and over again. However, some people indeed learn from the past and try to educate others to do things differently, and they are the reason why in the end I remain hopeful. I find it very ironic that despite all the advancements in science we have managed to reach, there are people who seem to drift even further away from the truth and choose to create their own versions of it.

    1. Bama, history does repeats itself. Personally, I believe that most of these repeated cycles are driven by the fact that the decision makers throughout human history have operated on self interest rather than with a concern for their societies. We’re in a pendulum swing now, and I have faith that it will swing back the other way soon and we’ll come to our senses. Finger crossed. ~James

  10. Hoping Alison, Bama, you, and some others are correct that we still have a chance to swing back into sensible, bigger-picture kinds of thinking. We can take a small step in that direction if the election turns out the way we hope!

    1. Lexie, given the daily, non-stop drama for the past 4 years, I shouldn’t have expected any change for the election, and it’s turned out to be true. We’ve gone backwards in so many ways that it will be hard to know where to start taking those small steps, but hopefully, we’ll be able to soon. ~James

  11. Another fascinating post. If only we could have a way to know for sure…maybe a time travel machine to take us back in time? But seriously, knowing the past should help prevent future calamity…one can only hope.

    1. Gilda, it’s hard to know specifics on reasons why these early cultures disappeared, but there’s too many independent sources of data for all of it to be wrong. So there’s no doubt that there are lessons to be learned if the right people just listen. ~James

    1. Judy, I guess this means that we keep making the same mistakes over and over, but I don’t believe this is news to anyone. What I find frustrating is how we continue to ignore or trivialize the problems. ~James

  12. The Mayan society (along with many others) proves no one is too big to fail. I don’t think humans as a whole have the ability to learn from the past. Seems the more we know the dumber we become.

    1. Laura, there are lots of historians out there that would agree with you – and this applies just as well to large, successful cultures like the Roman Empire. I suspect that in larger cultures there are individuals that see it coming, but the collapse happens in slow motion and it takes a concerted effort to stop it. Interesting to think about. ~James

  13. It is amazing how much we once knew and forgot. Amazing civilization that couldn’t possibly do everything right (who could) and that ended them. Earth itself is similar–freezing and warming, cyclically. Very interesting, guys!

    1. Thanks Jacqui. I suspect that some of these problems had an element of gradual creep to them. Humans see problems develop slowly over generations which gives them time to mentally adjust and accept. But, in the case of the Maya, a good deal of the blame has to be laid at the door of the ruling class that seems to have lost touch with what was happening in the everyday world. There’s an element of this happening in our own world as well. ~James

  14. Thanks for presenting the achievements of the Maya. I’ve been amazed at the information archeologists can glean from small clues, perhaps with time we’ll learn more about the decline of their large cities. I like your previous article about the Maya too, with the quote from Rigoberta Menchu about respect for them as people and their living culture.

    1. Rebecca, when traveling in this part of the world I keep reminding myself that all of the Pre-Colombian cultures in Latin America made so many advances and developed rich histories without any outside influence. Viewed through modern eyes it’s easy to focus only on the European influences, but the Maya, Aztec, Inca and others are lessons in creativity and ingenuity that frequently get lost in a Euro-centric, colonial world. ~James

      1. Yes, it is important to underline their amazing achievements. The Maya and Aztecs made paper from ficus bark before Europeans produced paper from plant fibers! Wish more of their writings were preserved to the present day.

  15. Interesting post, James and Terri! We think about the Maya every day, because of our dog. 🙂 I believe as well that the decline of the Maya must have had to do with multiple adversaries.

    It does scare me how familiar all those reasons sound to present day… Let’s hope positive change is around the corner, though. It boggles my mind how getting a majority to believe in and agree on this is such a struggle!

    1. Liesbet, the collapse of the Maya culture is probably emblematic of many of these types of failures. In many ways the success of the Maya was their own undoing, which applies to any number of military regimes like the Romans.

      As for a change around the corner, we’re waiting patiently, and frankly, will be glad when the election is over. Like just about everyone else in the US (and probably much of the rest of the world) we have election and drama fatigue. Fingers crossed here. ~James

    1. Virginia, I’ve had a long-term fascination with the Maya for years, and our last trip to Mexico allowed me to indulge it. For North Americans, Mexico is such an easy, inexpensive trip to make, and the country has so much to offer. I hope you can make it when our travel world gets back to something approaching “normal.” Take good care of yourself and be healthy. ~James

  16. Humans seem to be such short-sided creatures. We neither learn from the mistakes made in the past nor plan for the future when it requires making difficult decisions. The disasters that doomed the Mayan civilization should be a cautionary tale for us today. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Henry, I’ll give the Maya the benefit of the doubt and assume that the problems that brought the civilizations down took decades (and generations) to develop, making them harder to recognize and deal with. But in our case as well-informed, globally aware humans we should know better. And honestly, these science deniers just baffle me. ~James

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