What really wiped out the Maya?


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.

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.

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 climate. 

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 answered.