Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse?

Topics: Maya civilization, Mayan languages, Mesoamerican chronology Pages: 7 (2267 words) Published: November 18, 2012
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.

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 estimates 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).

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