Thursday, March 20, 2008

Collapse: Ancient Maya

Mayanists (those who study the Mayan civilization) marvel at the fact that one of the greatest civilizations that produced awe-inspiring temples and pyramids, accurate calendars, mathematics and hieroglyphic writing, and a complex social and political order could have collapsed. By the Mayan collapse I refer to the classic collapse which occurred during 750 A.D and 950 A.D and not the later invasion by the Spanish conquerors which occurred in 1750. Some of the theories of collapse include epidemic disease, earthquakes, drought, and agricultural collapse, the severing of trade routes, a peasant revolution, and invasion. Although some focus on these theories individually, most archaeologists believe that it was a combination of all these diferent factors that caused the mayan collapse.

I think that the main cause of collapse for the Mayans was overpopulation and poor resource management. The resources could have been affected by climate change (a severe drought) however with proper resource management I think they could have averted the crisis. So the depletion of resources and the expansion of the society created big problems as there were not enough resources to sustain the large population. In addition, the rulers of the cities were not adapting to the change but instead used the same techniques such as resource depletion through building large monuments to compete with each other and for warfare with different cities. I believe that the collapse could have been averted if the belief system was adapted to fit the situation and to manage resources more successfully. I think that the main mistake made by the rulers/kings was that they failed to see into the future and to manage resources for the future which always leads to collapse. Instead, they got caught up in their wars and stupid egotistical practices and basically doomed their civilization.

Causes of collapse according to Jared Diamond’s Five Step framework
Jared Diamond’s theory is that the collapse of the Maya can b artributed to a combination of environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbours and societal response that played a role in the collapse of the society. (Jared Diamond, 2006, Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive)

Jared Diamond’s theory can be summarized into a few points:

· He says that one strand is that population growth was in outstripping available resources which is similar to situations in Rwanda and Haiti.

· The effects of deforestation and hillside erosion which exacerbated the already present drought and decreased the amount of useble farmland

· Increased warfare that contributed to the collapse as more and more people fought over fewer and fewer resources.

· The kings and nobles failed to notice the problem that was griping their society and instead focused on enriching themselves for short term gain.

Environmental Damage
The Mayan’s deforested their environment heavily and this lead to hillside erosion as well as the exacerbation of the climate change problem. They deforested in order for wood to help build their large pyramids and structures and also used a form of agriculture which was not beneficial to the environment and rendered a lot of their much needed farmland useless. This made the Mayans heavily reliant on seasonal crops which were not very reliable especially when affected by drought and poor soil nutrition. They depleted a lot of their environmental resources for religious purposes and when the effects of this damage was felt, they responded by constructing more religious shrines and further exacerbating of the environmental damage. In addition, Overpopulation put a huge strain on the environment and its resources and resulted in social and political anxiety.

Climate Change
Another theory that Jared Diamond explores is that rapid climate change could have brought about an intense drought that could have contributed to the Maya collapse. He described the Mayan climate as a seasonal desert and said that the Mayans seemed to experience drought in a pattern of 208 years. Researchers studied sediment cores drilled from the Cariaco Basin, off northern Venezuela, and have discovered many chemicals and molecules which are only present during times of drought. They identified three periods of intense drought that occurred at 810, 860 and 910AD and these three dates correspond to the three periods of Mayan Collapse. Since the environment was so dry and unsuitable for farming at the time, the Mayans would have had a shortage of their staple food, corn which could also result in the downfall of the armies
However one must question if drought alone could have caused the downfall of the Maya. For example, the northern Yucatan city of Chichen Itza was flourishing although it was on the driest land. In addition, another rebuttal to this theory is that Mayans had plenty of experience in hydraulics and built canals, viaducts and reservoirs and had experiences and survived severe droughts before. In addition, the classic collapse hit different centres of the Maya civilization at different times and this would cause people to be skeptical of the role one huge drought as if that were the explanation, all the centres would have been hit at the same time.

Hostile Neighbours-
Archaeological reports show that warfare became more intense and frequent leading up to the time of the Mayan collapse. The Mayans never unified into a single empire like the Aztec Empire or the Valley of Mexico, but instead fought with each other. It was hard for them to fight lengthy battles or to go distances as they did not have food supplies to sustain them. I think that if the Mayan empire had unified and all the kingdoms had helped to deal with the problems posed by environmental destruction and climate change, the crisis could have been averted.
Loss of Trade Partners
Although Jared Diamond does not think this was a reason that was critical to its collapse I think that it contributed somewhat to the civilization’s downfall. The Mayans had an intricate trade system and were especially reliant on the central Mexican city of Teotihuacán. Teotihuacan declined rapidly at around 650 to 700 and limited Mayan economic and trade functions which could have triggered the decline of the entire civilization. However, many people argue that trade route discontinuation is more likely to be an effect rather than a cause of the Maya collapse as Mayans did not trade in items that were essential to its sustenance such as food and primary goods. Instead it traded in luxury items such as Obsidian, Feathers and Cacao.

Societal Response-
I think that the societies response to the above four points is the dominant factor. Religious inflexibility and lack of adaptation to the new problems created will result in the collapse of a civilization. This is clearly illustrated in the Mayans as the rulers did not try to avert collapse by modifying their belief system but kept on making religious structures and effigies that depleted their Environmental resources further.
However, we must keep in mind that the Mayans had no idea that what they were doing was detrimental to their society because at the time they did not know that their problems were being caused by a drought or by climate change. They thought that the gods were angry at them and to please the gods, the Mayans made more sacrifices and caused more resource depletion. We must keep in mind that it is very difficult to change a belief system that has served you well for hundreds of years and would it would probably have never occurred to the Mayans that all their problems were not caused by their gods anger and was instead caused by their own mistakes and mad decision making.

My Modifications to the five point framework

Although this framework is quite applicable in discerning the reasons behind the Mayan Collapse, I think that some new categories need to be added as the model does not entirely represent all the possible reasons for collapse. I think that the categories that need to be added include epidemic disease and civil disputes.

Epidemic Disease
I think that an epidemic of a contagious disease could have aided the collapse of the Mayans. This can tie in with the Climate change argument as disease often stems from malnutrition, famine which are a product of intense drought. I do not think that disease alone could have caused the downfall of the Maya but that it helped hasten it with the aid of other reasons such as Climate change and environmental Damage.

Civil Disputes
Civil Disputes, especially the peasant revolt could have had a major impact in the collapse. Those disputes regarding ownership of farmable land could have been a major factor contributing to the Mayan collapse as the society was not unified and some of the peasants did not obey the kings and rulers which created chaos and havoc in the society and could have contributed to the collapse.

Joseph Tainter’s Framework
Joseph Tainter’s framework is quite different to Jared Diamonds as Diamond focuses more on the environmental aspects leading to the collapse of a civilization whereas Tainter says that collapse is the result of diminishing returns or results on an investment. Tainter’s model framework consists of three models which are “The Dinosaur”, “The House Of Cards” and “The Runaway Train”.”The dinosaur” is when a society consumes its resources at an exponential rate, and its leaders do nothing to solve the problem but rely heavily in old beliefs and methods which don’t work anymore. “The Runaway train” is basically when the civilization needs economic growth in order to sustain itself and if this growth stops, the civilization will collapse. The Roman Empire is an example of this type of collapse. “House of Cards” is when the society has grown so big and complex that when a small problem hits it, it has a higher chance of collapsing.
I think that Tainters mode of the “Dinosaur” could be used successfully to find the dominant factor in the collapse of the Mayans which was that they started to deplete their resources heavily which could be due to climate change or increased warfare which limited resources and because the rulers and kings did nothing to modify their belief system which was clearly not helping them.

The most applicable model would be Joseph Tainters as it is less rigid than Jared Diamonds as diamond focuses more on environmental pressures where as Tainter says that environmental destruction does not explain collapse. I think this is a valid point as sometimes ancient societies collapse without environmental destruction and sometimes environmental destruction occurs but does not result in the collapse of society because of good resource management and modification of beliefs/ laws to manage the environmental problem. In addition, Tainters model offers a broader picture which can be used more efficiently to compare ancient civilizations with modern ones.

I think that the modification I made to Jared Diamonds model would make it more applicable to the Mayan civilization but it’s still not as efficient as Tainters model.

Comparison with different societies
The Mayan society can be compared with Easter Island. The main similarities between them are that both civilizations depleted their resources because of a belief system that could not adapt and change to fit better with the problems they were facing. The Mayans deforested and depleted their resources by making statues and pyramids of their gods because they were facing a drought. This only caused further problems as the environment became more fragile and the civilization became weaker. Easter Island also depleted their resources through environmental destruction, especially deforestation, in order to build their large stone platforms and statues for burials and other religious artifacts. When all their environmental damage started to take a toll on their civilization, they responded with more deforestation for building more religious statues. Clearly the main cause of collapse for both civilizations is that their belief systems did not adapt to face the severe problems they had regarding environmental stress and climate change. Also, population problems in both civilizations led to increasing warfare and civil disputes and this was followed quickly by social and political collapse.

What can contemporary society learn from the collapse of the Mayans?

Although our modern society has different problems and concerns from ancient civilizations such as the Mayans, we can still learn from their mistakes as well as their successes. I think the main thing that we can learn is that we need to adapt our values system to any sort of problem we are having.
Most of our modern societies such as Australia are being severely affected by climate change just as the Maya were. However if we stick to our previous ways (making lots of carbon emissions etc.) our society will be likely to collapse, just like the Maya who did not modify their belief system. We need to adapt our ways and become more environmentally friendly to avoid collapse.
Also many countries are deforesting a lot which is very detrimental to the environment as it causes and exacerbates many problems that are present. They should learn from the Maya and try to regenerate their resources in order to avoid collapse.

I think that contemporary society has a lot to learn from the collapse of ancient civilization especially the Mayans. I hope we take in all these lessons so that in the future we can avoid collapsing and turning into some other civilization’s SOSE project.



Diamond,(2006) Collapse How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, USA

Harris, (1993), Lost Civilizations, MF publishing Group, New York


Maya Culture Collapse: Current Theory Last updated 16/03/2008 13:15:20 -0600© 2005 Copyright, Authentic Maya

American Scientist Online,,

2005.Wikipedia, Societal Collapse,, 2008

Werewolf Rampant, Sunday, March 16, 2008

1 comment:

Rohita said...