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Mysterious Sudden Collapse of the Mayan Civilization

The Mystery of the Maya explores one of the greatest mysteries of all time and shows how the ancients still weave their spell upon the present. Hidden beneath the lush green canopy, in the northwestern part of the isthmus of North America, is a lost world of ancient Maya unknown to Westerners and most South Americans for over a millennium. It was not until intrepid 19th explorer/scientists visited the heart of the Mexican jungle to explore the secrets of the Maya ruins. In the ancient city of Palenque, they encountered moths as big as bats, monkeys that roar like lions, and a venomous snake whose bite is an almost certain death sentence. Archaeologists have recently unearthed the throne of one of the last kings of Palenque and have explored unexcavated ruins swallowed by jungle a thousand years ago.

The ancient Maya—a more than 4,000 years old civilization, whose early settlements date back to about 2,000 BCE–were known for their vast knowledge of architecture, straight roads, and canals, agriculture, hieroglyphic writing, pottery, and their very advanced calendar system. The Maya were relatively small people, as they still are today. Life expectancies are lower than 30 years, a high infant mortality and low adult survival after 50 years is known. The Post-Classic period is characterized by population rearrangements and mobility.
It is believed that the average height for a male was five feet and two inches, whereas the average height for a female was four feet and ten inches. Nevertheless, they were fearsome warriors and dominated most of Central and North America. Their advanced knowledge of math, agriculture, and astronomy, coupled with brutal war tactics, made them unconquerable. At the start of the Classic period–around 1.8 KYA], the Mayan empire had become a complex and dynamic entity, undergoing a series of population expansions and contractions. The Classic Period also experienced an intensification of trade and commerce among Mayan City–States and other civilizations including the Aztecs.

They built more than fifty powerful city-states during the Classic period, which lasted for six hundred years. It seemed that nothing could ever stop their majestic empire; but somehow, around 900 CE, this whole civilization vanished. Between 400 and 450, the population was estimated at a peak of twenty-eight thousand, between 750 and 800–larger than London at the time. The population then began to steadily decline. By 900 the population had fallen to fifteen thousand, and by 1200 the population was again less than 1000. In Quirigua, the last king, Jade Sky, began his rule between 895 and 900, and throughout the Maya area all kingdoms similarly fell around that time.

What caused the mysterious demise of the Maya? What was the cause that led to the disappearance of one of the greatest civilizations in the history of Mesoamerica? The collapse did not happen all at once; instead, it occurred over time from place to place, between about the late 8th and 925—about ±100 years. Exactly why any of this transpired, though, is a mystery.
Arguably the New World’s most advanced pre-Columbian civilization, the Maya carved large stone cities into the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America, complete with elaborate plazas, palaces, pyramid-temples and ball courts. These structures were all built without metal tools. The Maya were skilled weavers and potters. Known for their hieroglyphic writing, as well as their calendar-making, mathematics, astronomy, and architecture skills, the Maya reached the peak of their influence during the so-called Classic Period, from around 250 CE to 900 CE. But at the end of the Classic Period–in one of history’s great enigmas–the populace rather suddenly deposed its kings, abandoned the cities, made wholesale exits to the north, and ceased with technological innovation.

The ancient Maya lived in present-day southern Mexico and northern Central America [mostly Guatemala]. As a civilization, they are recognized for their sophisticated calendar systems and hieroglyphic writing, as well as their achievements in areas such as agriculture and architecture. Mayans are the only civilization who had constructed pyramids other than Egyptians. The Mayan civilization was probably the most controversial civilizations ever to exist. Scientists and researchers of the 19th century were completely stunned to see the advance science, techno-logy, and architecture, they had in those ancient times and outside Europe.

Most of their architectural beauties had a coincidence with different other cultures that existed before them rather than having learned from their predecessors or distant civilizations. Chichen Itza—a great city of the Mayan culture–is the most mysterious construction ever made. It cast a shadow of a snake’s body on the head of the snake that was already built beforehand. There are some mathematical and architectural Chichen Itza facts for which scientists have no answer as to how they were achieved with such accuracy.
The mathematical concept of zero was developed by Mayan culture. They had little connection with the people outside their culture; so, it is likely that everything they made is their invention. The first recorded zero appeared in Mesopotamia around 3 BCE. The Mayans invented it independently circa 4 CE. It was later devised in India in the mid-fifth century, spread to Cambodia near the end of the seventh century, and into China and the Islamic countries at the end of the eighth.

The mysterious Mayan calendar has predicted some events with uncanny accuracy, e.g. he Maya often recorded dates on monuments they built. Their calendar system was more accurate than the European calendar of their time. Their knowledge of astronomy has been equally astonishing to scientists. For example, there is the observational tower of El Caracol at Chichen Itza.  The shadow is cast by the building occurs only during equinoxes which show that they had advanced knowledge of astronomy. There are many other buildings that were constructed by them which have astronomical importance. However, the precise methods and tools used by the Maya to make these observations remain a mystery.

There were skilled people in every category of work which made them self-sustaining. Furthermore, they were the ones to construction pyramids that can only be seen in Egypt. In fact, Mayans have many correlations with ancient Egypt like advancement in astronomy, construction, and sports. Some researchers have gone so far as to say that Mayan originated from Egypt, but their advanced agricultural techniques and other practices are a contrast. Equally mysterious is the fact that so far no one really knows how and from where did they originate.
Are Mayans considered indigenous people? The Maya are the country’s indigenous population. They are the direct descendants of the original indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatán peninsula. Scientists are typically split between two theories on the subject: Either the Maya developed directly from an older “mother culture” known as the Olmec, or they sprang into existence independently.

Are Mayans the indigenous people of North and South America and descended from the same stock as the Native North Americans? Native Americans are descendants of Siberian migrants that penetrated the American continent 40–15 KYA [thousand years ago]. These travelers are thought to have originated in the South Altaic region of Central Asia. We do know that humans got to Monte Verde, Chile in extreme South America ~14. 5 KYA. In addition, Clovis remains belonging to Y haplogroup Q-L54 (xM3) from western Montana indicate that gene flow from Siberia to America happened before 12.6 KYA indicating prior divergence among Native American groups. There is good evidence that Paleo-Natives reached the region known today as Mesoamerica around 10–16 000 KYA. These original settlers were hunter-gatherers surviving on wild animals, collecting wild plants, shellfish, and possibly fishing. Within the traditional Mayan region, a number of settlements have been found at Los Tapiales in the Quiche Basin in the highlands of Guatemala dating to 10–11 KYA.

All of that suggests that Mayans are descendants of the original migrants from Asia. Minimal information exists on the genetic constitution of Mayan populations and their relationships to non-Mayan Mesoamerican groups. In short, it is suggestive but unproved that the Mayans are linked to Native Americans or to other more southern cultural groups.
Since the Mayan land was dry and had no river water supply as such, they built reservoirs to collect rainwater and use them throughout the year. The largest reservoir held 20 million gallons of water; how that was constructed is mysterious beyond explanation.

Another mystery of the Maya is their writing system, which was one of the most advanced in the ancient world, even including Asia and Mesopotamia. The Maya developed a complex system of hieroglyphs that represented both phonetic sounds and ideographic concepts, allowing them to record their history, literature, and religious beliefs. However, the meaning of many of these mysterious glyphs remains unknown, and the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs is an ongoing area of research and discovery.

Ancient Maya was a most remarkable and sophisticated society as well as being an aggressive and blood thirsty one.  Consider their ball court, blood games, and human sacrifice of adults and children, males and females, presumably to appease their dangerous gods. The victims of human sacrifice by Mexico’s ancient Mayans–who threw children into water-filled caverns– were likely boys and young men not virgin girls as previously believed. There was a prevalent use of slaves during the Post-classic era of the Maya. Slaves included prisoners of war, orphans, the children of those already enslaved, and those caught stealing.

Even though they lived in a tropical area, they had sweat rooms and researchers believe that they built it to communicate with supernatural beings to get rid of diseases.
Unlike the Roman empire, the Maya civilization was never unified into a single state. Instead, the ancient Maya had their kings and priests rule them. They lived in several independent cities with rural communities and large urban ceremonial centers. While these cities shared similar cultures and religions [the creatures of tropical pre-Columbian Mesoamerica which were the most commonly revered were jaguars, deer, turtles, toads, snakes, spider monkeys, and various birds, especially macaws, vultures, hummingbird, and water birds. Turkeys were once worshipped as gods. Fish, snails, conch, and shellfish, were important in rituals as well as diet]. They had their local kings ruling them, some more powerful than the others.
The best-known hero myth, included in the Popol Vuh, is about the defeat of a bird demon and of the deities of disease and death by the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Of all the depictions of death, Ah Puch was said to be the most feared of the Mayan gods. The Mayans while mourning silently during the day, would create a dreadful din at night in order to scare him away. The conquistadors describe him as wearing bells and that he comes ringing them.

Around 250 CE, the Maya entered its Classic Period, an era in which they built flourishing cities with temples and palaces, and population size peaked. However–by the end of the Classic Period, around 900 CE–almost all the major cities in what was then the heart of Maya civilization—the southern lowlands region, in present-day northern Guatemala and neighboring portions of Mexico, Belize and Honduras—had been abandoned.

Dozens of theories have been put forth to explain what happened. Was it a disease, a social revolution, consecutive droughts due to climate change leading to famine, foreign invaders, over-population, misuse of natural resources, obstruction in trade routes with other civilizations, or earthquakes?
Some historians, for instance, point to a major drought, exacerbated by deforestation and soil erosion, as the impetus for the societal collapse, while others put the blame on a disease epidemic, a peasant revolt against an increasingly corrupt ruling class, constant warfare among the various city-states, a breakdown of trade routes or some combination thereof. Adding to the mystery is the fact that–though dispersed–the Maya themselves never disappeared. Millions of their Mayan-speaking descendants continue to inhabit the region to this day.
An exposition of the evidence and theories for the mysterious Mayan collapse gives an insight into the culture and the admixture of reasons leading to the end of the powerful society.

•Climate Change
One of the most theorized and now most popular reasons for the Maya civilization’s disappearance is the drought brought about by climate changes.
Tikal, the largest city of the Maya civilization, is in the middle of a rainforest. Today it is surrounded by a high forest where parrots fly in and out among the treetops while occasional rainstorms are frequent. Therefore, it is rather difficult to envision that there was a terrible drought that wiped out the entire civilization.
However, recent studies reveal that sediment at the bottom of Lake Chichancanab provides evidence of prolonged periods of low rainfall for over more than 100 years, from 800 to 1,000 CE.

•Disruption in trade
According to some anthropologists and archeologists, the Mayans used volcanic glass [obsidian] for cutting purposes due to its sharp edges. The Mayans and their neighbors lacked sharp metal tools. Obsidian became one of the precious instruments of society. They started trading it outside their community in exchange for other goods. But, eventually, the valuables of the civilization began slipping away from them. At the same time, the overland routes for trade majorly shifted with sea-based expeditions. As a consequence–being located in an inland area–they were disconnected from many other civilizations who used to pass them on their journey.

•Social-Political Unrest
As the drought prolonged, the agricultural productivity very likely decreased; and the political strife intensified. In addition, wide-scale hunger led to frustrations and resentments among the general population against the kings. As a consequence, civil war ensued, resulting in high causalities and migrations.
Many argue that it was not Mayan society per se, but its political system that collapsed. This is accentuated by the fact that around six million Mayans live in Central America and across the globe.

•Poisoning of Water Reservoirs
A new study of Tikal’s [Ancient Maya’s largest city] water reservoirs reveals severe contamination of the city’s drinking water due to mercury and toxic algae. This apparently happened during the same period when the civilization was going through its prolonged drought. This resulted in a conversion of drinking water from life-sustaining to a cause of serious illness—leading to the eventual abandonment of the city.

•Excessive wood cutting for construction
Like many cultures—including modern nations—the Mayans ignored to limits of natural resources and harvested to the point of deforestation, resulting in a dramatic change in climate, leading to less rainfall, droughts, and further loss of vegetation including crops, which constituted a vicious downward spiral. The crops were destroyed because of a lack of rain, especially during the summer, leading to severe food shortages, and migrations to still fertile regions of the north.

•Over Population
It is estimated that the Maya civilization peaked at around 2 million in population in about 800 CE. Some studies suggest that they likely overused their natural deposits for the benefit of the growing numbers. As their population increased, they needed more woods and crops for their houses, cargo, trading, construction and consumption. After a hundred years of overuse of the available resources, the land was exhausted and the people desperate.

•Warfare and Foreign Invasion
The Mayans were tactical warriors. They had built impressive fortifications around some of their cities, e.g., Seibal and Tikal, which kept them relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerican peoples. So, there is little reason to conclude that the civilization collapsed due to foreign invasion. The Spanish conquistadores did not appear until the early 1500s and the last independent Mayan city, Nojpeten–in present-day Guatemala–fell to Spanish troops in 1697. Did the Spanish finally wipe out the Mayans? In the Bay of Honduras, at least 150,000 Maya were taken as slaves to the Caribbean. Little is known of the Maya slave trade that affected southern Belize since there are few records before the 1650’s. What we do know is that the Spaniards had wiped out 70 to 90 percent of the population. The Belize Maya resistance to the Spanish Conquerors lasted from 1525-1700 CE.

•Warfare among the city-states
As in the rest of the world’s civilizations, it is likely that war for territorial dominance or competition for resources could have initiated the widespread destruction of Maya cities.

Seismologists from Stanford University studied ancient earthquakes and concluded that five earthquakes hit the Mesoamerican region in the late 9th century. The earthquakes were of a magnitude of 7.5 to 7.9. That theory is weak, however, because there is little archaeological evidence that shows any such damage to Maya buildings or any other architecture during that period or at any other time.

None of the above theories is conclusive by itself, and even the combination of factors is not entirely compelling. The only thing that has been learned is that they disappeared in a little more than year’s time, and that it is rather awkward to explain exactly how such a big, rich,  and powerful, civilization to decline so rapidly. The ancient cities were largely forgotten until the 19th century, when their ruins started to be uncovered by explorers and archeologists. Today, the Maya continue to reside in their ancestral homelands in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.


I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.