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 By Robin Wylie

22 February 2016

When the Spanish conquistadores sailed for Central America in

1517, their goal was to vanquish the resident Maya civilisation.
But the colonists arrived to find that much of their work had been
done for them.
By the time the Spanish made landfall, the Maya’s political
and economic powerhouse has vanished

The Maya’s towering limestone cities – a classic feature of one of

the ancient world’s most advanced societies – were already being
reclaimed by the jungle.

The question of how the Maya met their end is one of history's
most enduring mysteries. The Mayapeople survived; they even
managed to stage a long resistance to European rule. But by the
time the Spanish made landfall, the political and economic power
which had erected the region's iconic pyramids, and had at one
time sustained a population of some two million people, had
El Castillo at the Mayan ruins at Tulum Quintana Roo, Mexico (Credit: 24BY36/Alamy)

The first Maya sites were built during the first millennium BC, and
the civilisation reached its height around AD600. (In the
chronology of Mesoamerica, the Maya sit between the earlier
Olmec and later Aztec civilisations). Archaeologists have
uncovered thousands of ancient Maya cities, most of which are
spread across southern Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Belize and

It’s likely that still more Maya ruins lie hidden beneath the region’s
thick tropical forest.
The Maya had a strong grasp of mathematics and
astronomy and used the only known written script in

After about 200 years of serious archaeological study, we know

enough about the Maya to be suitably impressed. Their distinctive
art and architecture prove that these were master craftspeople.
The Maya were also intellectually advanced. They had a strong
grasp of mathematics and astronomy, which they used to align
their pyramids and temples with the precession of planets and the
solar equinoxes. And they used the only known written script in
Mesoamerica, a bizarre-looking set of characters known as Maya

The marvels the Maya left behind have earned them an enduring
mystique. But the way the civilisation met its end is every bit as

Let’s start with what we know. Around AD850, after centuries of

prosperity and dominance, the Maya began to abandon their great
cities, one after another. In less than 200 years, the civilisation
had slumped to a fraction of its former glory. There would be later
isolated resurgences, but the grandeur of the Maya’s heyday was
gone forever.

Apart from its dramatic scale, what makes the Maya collapse so
striking is that, despite decades of study, archaeologists still
cannot agree on what caused it. As with the Roman Empire, there
probably wasn’t one single culprit for the Maya’s downfall. But the
nature of their decline leads some researchers to believe that the
Maya civilisation fell victim to a major catastrophe – one able to
topple city after city in its wake.
Archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused the Maya collapse (Credit:

There are abundant theories about what finished off the Maya.
There are the old favourites – invasion, civil war, collapsing trade
routes – but ever since the first Central American ancient climate
records were pieced together in the early 1990s, one theory has
become particularly popular: that the Maya civilisation was
ultimately doomed by a period of severe climate change.

In the centuries immediately before the Maya collapse – the so-

called “Classical Age” between about AD250 and 800 – the
civilisation boomed. Cities flourished and harvests were good.
Climate records (which mostly come from the analysis of cave
formations) show that during this time the Maya area had received
relatively high rainfall. But the same records show that, starting in
about AD820, the region was ravaged by 95 years of punctuated
droughts, some of which lasted for decades.
Most of the Classic Maya cities fell between AD850 and
925 – largely coincident with a century of drought
Ever since these droughts were first identified, researchers have
noticed a striking correlation between their timing and that of the
Maya collapse: most of the Classic Maya cities fell between
AD850 and 925 – largely coincident with the century of drought.
And while a simple correlation isn’t enough to close the case, the
tight fit between the droughts and the downfall leads many experts
to believe that the 9th Century climate shift might somehow have
caused the Maya’s demise.

But attractive as the drought explanation is, one piece of evidence

has been standing in its way. Because, while most Maya cities
declined as the climate dried, not all did.
This northern resurgence flies against the drought theory
of the Maya’s demise

The Maya cities which fell during the 9th Century droughts were
mostly located in the southern portion of their territory, in modern
day Guatemala and Belize. In the Yucatan peninsula to the north,
however, the Maya civilisation not only survived through these
droughts, it then began to flourish.

While the southern Maya civilisation began to disintegrate, the

north enjoyed relative prosperity, with the rise of a number of
thriving urban centres. These included one of the greatest of all
Maya cities, Chichen Itza (one of the world’s “New Seven
Wonders”). This northern resurgence flies against the drought
theory of the Maya’s demise: if the south was permanently
crippled by the climate shift, critics argue, then why wasn’t the

Researchers have proposed various explanations for this north-

south discrepancy, but so far no one theory has won out.
Recently, however, a new discovery has gone some way towards
resolving this enduring paradox.
Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan cities (Credit: AGF Srl/Alamy)

Maya archaeologists find dating difficult. Almost none of the

Maya’s written records, which once numbered in the thousands,
survived past colonial times (on the order of Catholic priests, the
Spanish burned Maya books wholesale - only four are now known
to exist). Instead, to determine the times that ancient Maya cities
thrived, researchers rely on calendar inscriptions on stone
monuments, stylistic analysis of the Maya’s ornate ceramics, and
radiocarbon dates from organic materials.
Evidently the north didn’t come through these droughts
unscathed after all

Earlier studies had already determined the approximate ages of

the main urban centres in the northern Maya civilisation; it was
these that had revealed that the north had endured the 9th
Century droughts. However until recently this haul of data had
never been gathered together in a single study. Doing so is
important, because it allows the northern Maya region to be
viewed as a whole, helping researchers to identify overarching
trends in its rise and fall.

Now, in a study published in December, archaeologists from

the US and the UK have brought together for the first time all of
the calculated ages for urban centres in the northern Maya lands.
These comprise about 200 dates from sites across the Yucatan
peninsula, half obtained from stone calendar inscriptions and half
from radiocarbon dating. The researchers could then construct a
broad picture of what times the northern Maya cities had been
active, and the times when they each might have fallen into

What the team found significantly changes our understanding of

when, and perhaps even how the Maya civilisation met its end.
Contrary to previous belief, the north had suffered a decline during
a time of drought - in fact, it had suffered two of them.

The number of stone calendar inscriptions declined in times of drought (Credit: Image
There was a 70% decline in stone calendar inscriptions in the
second half of the 9th Century. This same pattern of decline is
also echoed in radiocarbon dates across the northern Maya
region, which indicate that wooden construction also dwindled
during the same time period. Importantly, this is the time that the
droughts are believed to have caused the collapse of the Maya
civilisation in the south – evidently the north didn’t come through
these droughts unscathed after all.
The north certainly fared better than the south, but the
region nevertheless suffered a significant decline

The researchers believe that this waning of creative activity shows

that political and societal collapse was underway in the north. The
north certainly fared better than the south during the 9th Century,
but these new findings suggest that the region nevertheless
suffered a significant decline. This northern decline had previously
escaped detection mostly due to the subtle nature of the evidence:
a decline in construction, even one as large as this, is hard to spot
without the comprehensive, region-wide analysis provided by the
new study.

The northern decline of the 9th Century is an intriguing new detail

in the Maya’s story, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter it - after all,
we already knew that the northern Maya had survived past the 9th
Century droughts (Chichen Itza and other centres thrived until well
into the 10th Century).

But the second decline the team identified does change our
understanding of the Maya’s story. After a short recovery during
the 10th Century (which, interestingly, was coincident with an
increase in rainfall), the researchers noticed another slump in
construction at numerous sites across the northern Maya territory:
stone carving and other building activity seems to have fallen by
almost half between AD1000 and 1075. What’s more, just like the
crisis 200 years earlier, the researchers discovered that this 11th
Century Maya decline also took place against a backdrop of
severe drought.

And not just any drought. The ones in the 9th Century had
certainly been severe. But the 11th Century brought the worst
drought that the region had seen for fully 2,000 years - a

The 11th Century Maya decline occurred during a period of severe drought (Credit: YAY
Media AS/Alamy)

After a short recovery there was another slump in construction in

the north – against a backdrop of severe drought. Climate records
show that rainfall diminished dramatically for the best part of a
century, between around AD1020 and 1100 - a snug fit with the
archaeologically derived dates for the collapse of the northern
Maya. One correlation doesn’t mean much on its own. But find
two, and even sceptics might start to whisper “causation”.
After this second wave of droughts there was to be no real
recovery for the Maya
The 11th Century megadrought had been implicated in the fall of
the northern Maya before, but the dating techniques used had
given ambiguous ages, making it hard to tell if the timings of the
two events really did overlap. The comprehensive analysis
published in the December study lets us say with much greater
certainty that climate change was contemporaneous with not one,
but two devastating periods of Maya decline.

If the first wave of droughts had finished off the Maya in the south,
it looks like the second wave may have brought on their demise in
the north.

After this second wave of droughts there was to be no real

recovery for the Maya. Chichen Itza and most of the other
important centres in the north would never rise again. There would
be small but noteworthy exceptions - such as the northern city of
Mayapan which flourished from the 13th to 15th centuries - but
these would never rival the size and complexity of the Classic
Maya cities. In many ways, the 11th Century was the Maya’s last

With these findings, it looks even more likely that climate change
played a significant role in the Maya’s downfall. But how?
Most archaeological explanations for the collapse involve
agriculture. The Maya, like all large civilisations, were heavily
dependent on crops for their economic might - and of course to
sustain their vast workforce. The simplest explanation for the
Maya’s fall is that year-upon-year of low crop yields, brought on by
the droughts, may have gradually diminished the Maya’s political
influence, eventually leading to full-on societal disintegration.
Year-upon-year of low crop yields, brought on by the
droughts, may have gradually diminished the Maya’s
political influence

But even advocates of the drought hypothesis admit that the

picture is bound to be more nuanced than that.

“We know that there was already increased warfare and socio-
political instability throughout the Maya area prior to the 9th
Century droughts,” says Julie Hoggarth at Baylor University in
Waco, Texas, who co-led December’s climate analysis.
Inter-city conflict is a pretty good way to break up a civilisation too;
it’s possible that the Maya just fought themselves apart. But that
still leaves the question of the droughts, and those well fitting
dates. Perhaps, then, it was a mixture of the two. As food stocks
shrank during the dry decades, competition for resources would
probably have become even more intense, perhaps eventually
reaching a tipping point which caused the ancient Maya civilisation
to fracture irreparably.

It's possible that the Maya just fought themselves apart (Credit: JORDI CAMÍ/Alamy)

But there’s at least one other explanation that doesn’t require any
warfare. It may not have been the Maya’s dark side that doomed
them, but their talents. Because, while the Maya were famously
great craftsmen, but they were also environmental sculptors.

To grow enough food to feed their millions, the Maya dug huge
systems of canals, sometimes hundreds of miles across, which
allowed them to drain and elevate the infertile wetlands which
cover much of the Maya heartland, producing new arable land
(some archaeologists call these “floating gardens”). The Maya
also cleared huge tracts of forest, both for agriculture and to make
room for their cities.
Deforestation to clear land for agriculture might have
exacerbated localised drying effects

Some scholars think that the Maya’s skilled manipulation of their

environment could have had a hand in their eventual collapse, by
somehow worsening the impacts of natural climate change. For
example, some scholars think that deforestation to clear land for
agriculture might have exacerbated localised drying effects,
leading to more significant agricultural losses during drought.

A more indirect consequence of their agricultural prowess might

simply have been that it allowed the population to grow too large,
which might have increased their vulnerability to an extended food
shortage, and therefore reduced their resistance to a drier

Mesoamerica’s famous civilisation mysteriously fell about 1,000 years ago (Credit: Age
Whatever the reason – or reasons – for the Maya’s collapse, we
do know something about the fate of the people who were left to
face its aftermath. Starting around AD1050, the Maya took to the
road. They abandoned the inland regions where their ancestors
had thrived, and made their way in droves towards the Caribbean
coast, or to other sources of water, such as the lakes and
sinkholes which occasionally punctuate the dense green of the
Maya’s former territory.

The exodus of the Maya people may have been motivated by

hunger. If the crops had indeed failed following the 9th and 11th
Century droughts, relocating nearer water might have made
sense, either to access seafood or to take advantage of the wetter
land near the sea. Whatever the reason, moisture was clearly on
their minds.

But then again, that had always been the case. One of the duties
of a Maya ruler was to commune with the gods to ensure a wet
year and good harvests. At sites across the Maya world,
archaeologists have dredged up human bones from the bottom of
lakes and sinkholes - thought to be doorways to the underworld:
grim evidence that the people resorted to sacrifice to appease
their deities. When the rains were good, and the civilisation
blossomed, it must have seemed like their prayers were being