Foraging Societies

Settled Agriculture

Early Ceremonial Centers

Urban Society

Early Empires

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© 2003 David Koeller.  All rights reserved.

The End of Mayan Civilization

c. 1300

 

A beautiful Mayan temple

During the time of the Mayan Civilization, its territory stretched across what is now known as Mesoamerica and the Yucatan Peninsula. There were three periods of Mayan history, the Pre-Classic 300BC-250AD, Classic Period 250AD-900AD, and the Post Classic-after 900AD. All held significant events for the civilization. However, during the Post Classic period, around 750 AD, the Mayan Civilization started to collapse. Many mysteries have been shared and stories told about how this down fall occurred, yet not one can come to a distinct conclusion. Peasant revolt and agriculture abuse are just a few of the possibilities that may have lead to the destruction of the city.

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The most widely accepted of these theories on the collapse of the Mayan Civilization is a peasant revolt. The hierarchy of the Maya was completely dependent on slave labor. The people of most power were nobles and priests. These higher classes were often rich in power and wealth, but few in number. Miller suggests that at one point the oppressed Mayan workers all gave up their way of life and retreated into the Puter Jungle (Miller, 22). Thompson agrees, writing that "In city after city the ruling group was driven out or, more probably, massacred by the dependent peasant, and power then passed to the peasant leaders and small-town witch town" (Thompson, 105). In conclusion, the priests and nobles were left to fend for themselves. Previously dependent on the slaves and peasants, the civilization dissolved because the nobles and priests did not know how to work the land.

Another accepted theory about the end of the civilization is that the Mayans abused their land in trying to produce agriculture, and this lead to a lack of resources. Soil exhaustion, water loss and erosion were some of the consequences to the Mayans' chosen agricultural techniques. The Mayans also used a slash and burn method of clearing the forest in order to produce ground for crop growing. This extremely wasteful method created a lack of natural food for the local wildlife and forced migration and scattering.

Other possible reasons for the collapse of the Mayan civilization besides the aforementioned include supernatural visions by leaders to move elsewhere, major climatic change, overpopulation, internal warfare, and possible outbreaks of deadly viruses. While the evidence for our first theory seems to be the strongest and most supported by scholars, the truth is that no one knows for sure just what happened to the great Mayan civilization, and it can quite possibly remain one of the greatest mysteries historians will ever want to study.

Sources:

J. Eric S. Thompson. Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. University of Oklahoma Press, 1954, Norman, OK

Robert Raul Miller. Mexico: A History. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985, Norman, OK

George Stuart and Gene Stuart. The Mysterious Maya. National Geographic Society, 1977, Washington, DC


Edited, Written and Researched by
Miranda Nelson
Greg Sandford
Reed H. Larson
September 21, 1999

Text copyright 1998 by David W. Koeller.  All rights reserved.