In the jungles of northern Guatemala, a team of archaeologists carefully pick through the ruins of an ancient city. Using the latest scientific methods, they hope to build up a picture of life in the great Mayan empire. But will they finally solve the mystery of why it collapsed, leaving thousands of years of civilization to turn to dust?
Today, the Mayans are mostly considered a mysterious people, known for constructing vast cities across what is now Central America before abruptly disappearing more than 1,000 years ago. However, during their peak around the sixth century A.D., they were one of the region’s greatest civilizations.
The first seeds of the Mayan Empire were sown during what is known as the Preclassic era, which lasted from 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D. During this period, the Maya established settlements across modern-day Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, cultivating crops such as squash, maize and beans. And as they thrived, their villages began to develop into fledgling cities.
Then, in the second century A.D., the Mayan civilization suffered a collapse. Many of their great cities were abandoned, and the burgeoning empire went into decline. But even though we don’t know for sure why this happened, we do know that the Maya soon came back stronger than ever before.
During the Classic period, which ran from 250 to 900 A.D., the Maya erected grand monuments and cities across the region. In some settlements, as many as 120,000 people lived, worked and died. And as the civilization grew, its members started making startling developments in fields such as mathematics and agriculture.
Then, in the ninth century A.D., the Mayan civilization collapsed once more. And this time, the decline was far worse than before. Cities across Mesoamerica were abandoned, and what remained of their people moved northwards towards the lowlands. There the decimated Maya continued to scratch out a living on a far more humble scale.
But although the Maya were able to survive across a scattering of cities, the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century sounded the death knell for their civilization. Unable to defend itself against Western warfare techniques and European diseases, the last Mayan city fell in 1697. With it went the last vestiges of the once-great empire – along with any chance of unraveling the mysteries of its past.
Historically, experts have only been able to guess at what might have caused the Mayan civilization’s two great collapses. Did the cities become overpopulated, some have wondered, or did environmental factors cause the Maya to abandon certain settlements? Or, given their aggressive tendencies, did they drive out their populations with violence and war?
Today, most believe that some combination of all of these factors, combined with poor leadership, led to the dual collapses of the Mayan empire. However, an exact explanation has never been found. Now a team of researchers from the University of Arizona have uncovered some fascinating clues.
Led by archaeologist and anthropology professor Takeshi Inomata, the team also comprised three anthropology graduates from the University of Arizona, as well as Guatemalan archaeologists and researchers from Japan’s Naruto University, Ibaraki University and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies. And in January 2017 they published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the United States’ National Academy of Sciences.
In the paper, the academics detailed the results of over ten years’ research at Seibal, a Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala. First settled in around 400 B.C., this city was home to about 10,000 people at its peak. And even though it’s population began to decline around the time of the Mayan civilization’s Classical collapse, it remained a residential center until the 10th century A.D.
At Seibal, the researchers used radiocarbon dating to develop a precise chronology of life in the Mayan city through the years. And over the course of a decade, they collected a staggering 154 dates from the site – the biggest dataset of its kind ever retrieved from a single Mayan location.
Additionally, the team also considered the dates of ceramics retrieved from the site, as well as the results of expert excavations in the region. Eventually, with all of this information, they were able to build up a detailed picture of Seibal’s history. Specifically, they were able to determine when the population had boomed and shrunk, and when construction had been at its peak.
And when looking at the chronology of Seibal around the time of both the Preclassical and the Classical collapses, the researchers discovered some interesting details. “What we found is that those two cases of collapse follow similar patterns,” Inomata, the lead author of the paper, told UANews in 2017.
“It’s not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse,” Inomata continued. “First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in places, then another collapse.”
According to the researchers, both the Preclassical and Classical collapses were preceded by similar patterns of political upheaval, war and social crises. Eventually, these smaller waves of disquiet became too much for the Mayan civilization to bear, and entire cities ended up abandoned.
Although the research has yet to shed any lights on the precise details of these waves of collapse, it has provided an interesting insight into how the Mayan empire fell. Previously, many had believed that it was the result of a gradual decline. However, Inomata and his team have now theorized that a more complicated, interacting pattern of factors could have been at play.
Crucially, they have proposed that there were several incidences of collapse and recovery before the empire’s ultimate decline. “It’s really, really interesting that these collapses both look very similar, at very different time periods,” co-author and graduate student Melissa Burnham told UANews.
And now that they’re familiar with the pattern of collapse that preceded the fall of the Mayan Empire, the team’s next step could be to look for it elsewhere. “We now have a good understanding of what the process looks like,” explained Burnham, “that potentially can serve as a template for other people to try to see if they have a similar pattern at their (archaeological) sites in the same area.”
For Inomata, the record-breaking radiocarbon dating project is a sign of exciting things to come. “Now we’re getting to an interesting period because it’s getting more and more precise,” he explained. “We’re getting to the point where we can get to the interesting social patterns because the chronology is refined enough, and the dating is precise enough.”