Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? Essay

To gaze upon the majestic ruins of the Mayan civilisation which collapsed over a thousand years ago, one is often stirred with wonder and a deep sense of curiosity (Diamond, 2005, p157-8). What happened to this great empire and what brought about its demise? The tremendous task of erecting such elaborate and colossal structures was clearly performed by the hands of a well-organized and adept group of humans (Crist and Paganini, 1980, pg24).

Their empire occupied a vast area of roughly 325000 square kilometres in what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America (Fash, 1994, p182). This report will explore the causes that set in motion the collapse of the Mayan civilisation in the 10th century. I will examine particular elements in their history such as warfare and conquest, inherent difficulties in the areas of sustenance, resource management and environmental degradation. My goal is to formulate a more in-depth understanding of how such a complex and powerful people fell and what triggered their demise.

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BACKGROUND AND AGRICULTURE Initially the Mayan civilization prospered throughout the lowlands. From 300 B. C. to 900 A. D. the Mayans developed a relatively productive agriculture-based economy based on the surrounding terrains which lead to expansions in population and an ability to specialise (Crist and Paganini, 1980, pg23-24). They reached a unique level of sophistication and brought forth a wave of technology that increased subsistence productivity.

Such vital innovation included fishponds, storage facilities, dams, terraces and systems of ploughing fields to maximize cultivation (Lucero, 2002, p815-816). This released the individual burden on finding daily subsistence and as a society they became able to focus on development such as public construction, art, warfare and science (Crist and Paganini, 1980, p23-25). However, Mayan agriculture suffered from various limitations which made their level of stability somewhat fragile.

The Mayans relied heavily upon a narrow range of crops including corn which made up 70% of their diet, as well as beans, squash and maze (Diamond, 2003), (McNeill & McNeill, 2003). There was a precarious amount of nutrients in their staple diet and a scarcity of protein rich foods due a small percentage of meat available based on the quantity of animal bones found at the ancient sites (Diamond, 2005, p163). There is some dispute about the population density but many stimates put the range between 250-750 and even as high as 1500 people per square mile in main urban areas of the lowlands (Diamond, 2005, p163). Researchers believe these huge increases in population pushed practises of stripping the forest cover and reducing the length of fallow periods to meet the short-term needs of a demanding and expansive society (McNeil et al, 2010, p1021-22). These decisions would have had long-term negative implications on the viability and fertility of their agricultural resource base (Santley et al, 1986 p145).

Heavy environmental consumption may have led to deforestation and soil exhaustion, in which crop cultivation reduces due to the absence of essential nutrients needed for plant growth (Diamond, 2005) (Santley et al, 1986). Through physical evidence historians have determined that between 600A. D. and 900 A. D. , thinner layers of stucco were used than it earlier periods. Stucco is a form of lime plaster used to sculpture buildings and requires vast amounts of wood to produce. The prominent reduction in its use can be seen as an active preservation tactic possibly due to the effects of deforestation (McNeil et al, 2010, pg1023-24).

Another result of deforestation in the late period may have fuelled the formation of swamps in low-lying areas that created prime conditions for disease carrying mosquitos and parasites spreading yellow fever, syphilis and Chagas’ disease (Lucero, 2002, p815) (Crist and Paganini, 1980, p29). WATER MANAGEMENT AND CLIMATIC CHALLENGES The management of water played a crucial role in the rise and fall of the Mayan empire. Scarborough defines water management as “the interruption and redirection of the natural movement or collection of water by society”(Scarborough et al, 1991).

The natural depressions and sloping of the land were often utilized and modified accordingly (Davis-Salazar, 2003). With an unpredictable rainy season and dry months that could seemingly transform the landscape into a desert, the Mayans had a strong dependency on harvesting rain water through artificial reservoirs to see them through the dry season (Diamond, 2005) (McNeill & McNeill, 2003) . Many adaptions to the landscape were made to increase yield such as creating and sealing depressions to create low-land catchment areas and collecting surface run off through gravity-fed systems into reservoirs (Scarborough et l, 1993, pg136) (Davis-Salazar, 2003). This required a substantial amount of labour and the control of such a critical resource enabled Mayan rulers to employ power relationships over a large population by regulating the water distribution (Lucero, 2002, p815). Banding together large volumes of water was of a vital nature as it centralized power and assisted in regulating water quality and distribution. The reservoirs in Tikal had a capacity large enough to meet the needs of 10000 people for a period of up to 18 months (Diamond, 2003, p46).

Each region within the empire faced different topographic challenges and made adaptions based upon the terrain. It is evident through archeological findings that the Mayans made innovative land adaptations based on their topography, to maximize the catchment of rain to sustain them through the dry season. However what must be considered is what would happen through periods of sustained drought? Iconography found at major sites depict rulers within Mayan society were believed to have special ties with the gods and therefor worshipped and appeased in hopes of being blessed with a strong rain season. (Lucero, 2002, p815).

In public centers a variety of elaborate water rituals were performed by those in power to maintain and strengthen social order (Scarborough et al, 1993, pg137). A common complication faced by the Mayans was unreliable rain patterns. A year with insufficient levels of precipitation could have had devastating effects. Sustained periods of drought may have led to a sharp decline in agricultural output. Due to the already low nutrient content in their diet consisting primarily of corn, maze and beans, fluctuations in farming output would show a significant effect on the nutrition and sustenance of the people (Diamond, 2003).

Figure 1(Gill et al, 2007, p299) The graph above represents periods of droughts in the Yucatan Peninsula. These results are based on fossil shells in lake sediments in which the ratio of oxygen isotopes are analysed against other isotopes present to identify periods of climatic change through variations in evaporation and density. These particular results shows that the period around and during the 10th century were far dryer than anything experienced for over 6000 years in that region (Gill et al, 2007, p299).

Another suggested result of drought is a sweeping spread of disease due to a lack of a clean and consumable water source (Crist and Paganini, 1980, p29). It is suggested that all such events would have caused social unrest and uproar, with many looking towards the rulers as having somehow upset the gods, as it was the king who was given the responsibility of appeasing the gods and ensuring a continued blessing of rain through his self-proclaimed divinity (Diamond, 2005).

WARFARE AND CONQUEST Iconography and hieroglyphic text found in Copan and many other sights has placed warfare as a fixture of the Mayan identity. It is suggested that the motives of these conflicts between neighboring cities included revenge, control of trade routes, slavery, looting and demand for land expansion to accommodate population growth (Webster 2000 p98-106). Maya society was politically organized in small kingdoms that were perpetually at war with one another” (Diamond, 2003, p47). City states under pressure to expand may have gone to war over control of crucial resources such as access to a water source and fertile soil (Webster, 2000). A vital key to understanding the importance of warfare within the Mayan empire is that the rulers and elite class were often warriors themselves (Aoyama, 2005 p291).

Another interesting angle reverts back to the Kings responsibility to provide rain through his supernatural connection to the gods, if the King failed to provide such to his people, he may seek to command raids of neighboring city-state in order to satisfy the cries of his people and avoid punishment (Diamond, 2003 p47-48) The major archeological evidence for Mayan warfare include weapons such as spear heads and arrows, fortified construction, hieroglyphics and incidents of violent destruction in Copan (Aoyama, 2005 p292) (Webster 2000).

An unusually high percentage of obsidian spear and blade points were discovered at the Acropolis of Copan during the late classic period as well as stone depictions of warfare, sacrifice and what’s believed to a portrait of their last ruler dressed as a warrior with a long spear. All this supports the theory that near to the collapse of their civilisation, they were not peaceful but in times of conflict (Aoyama, 2005 p295). However the is much debate over the significance of warfare within their society. An example of conflict between city states is well documented between Copan and Quirigua.

It is believed that Quirigua was once under the rule of the larger city of Copan and rebelled. The king of Copan was captured and killed in 737A. D. After the victory however, Copan did not lose its independence nor was it destroyed, it even remarkably continued the lineage of the running dynasty. It is important to note there is evidence that points to the resolution of warfare being settled by the capture of one ruler by another, usually resulting in a sacrifice to the gods rather than traditional conquest scenarios involving large amounts of destruction and changes in power (Willey, 1990 p8-11).

CONCLUSION The rapid expansion of the city-states and the formation of one of the most densely populated areas in the world ushered an era of environmental exploitation. It order to meet their short term needs they adopted unsustainable methods of farming and logging which led to a dramatic increase in forest clearance and erosion (Diamond, 2005). Due to the variations in recorded levels of drought amongst the city-states, experts propose anthropogenic deforestation played a significant role in the climate shift.

The effects of heavy deforestation are raised temperatures and less rainfall due to disruptions in the water cycle (Shaw, 2003) which may have led to a “man-made drought” (Diamond, 2005, p169). Tho the Mayans were incredibly innovative in creating artificial reservoirs to see them through a dry season but they were un-prepared for sustained periods of drought. The lack of such as crucial resource could have led to disease, desertion, social and political turmoil and perhaps even civil war (Webster, 2000). By the 10th Century, the Mayans of the lowlands had all but disappeared.

I come to conclude that the prominent force that triggered the demise of the Mayan civilization was unprecedented periods of dry weather (Gill et al, 2007, p298). Although climate change was not the sole element involved, I propose it holds the key to their demise and anthropogenic deforestation played a part in the severity of the climate shift in the low land region (Shaw, 2003), (Diamond 2005). I propose that in the end, the reservoirs dried up and their crops begun to fail, social and political anarchy followed which only served to quicken the destruction of what was once, a great and sophisticated empire.

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