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.
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.
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.”
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.
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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