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The collapse of the Mayan empire

The causes of the collapse of the Mayan empire remain an enigma. However, there are many studies that try to explain the possible causes of the collapse of this great civilization.

Aim of this section is to mention the basic features of collapse, according to Adams (1993); describe the various theories about the end of this civilization, according to the work of Velasquez year 1997 which is summarized on pages 27, 28 and 29; and try to answer the riddle mentioned, to argue that the disappearance of the Mayan culture was due to the competition of both internal and external factors.

The basic features of the Maya collapse was the issue raised at a seminar held in 1970 en Santa Fe, New Mexico, sponsored by the School of American Research, attended by leading experts in the field as Richard Adams, Patrick Culbert, Gordon Willey, Robert Rands, William Bullard y William Sanders. According to the report by Adams in 1973, the event in question stated that the Mayan collapse warn the following basic features:

  1. Failure of the culture of a ruling elite, characterized by the abandonment of administrative and residential buildings; cessation of the building of memorials and neglect of ritual activity in the temple; to the making of sculpted monuments; stop polychrome pottery making and related work in jade; abandonment calendar and writing system; Interruption own lifestyle of an elite, and disappearance of the same;
  2. Rapid depopulation of peripheral and ceremonial centers; and
  3. The short time in which all this happens; namely, a period of 40 a 100 years old.

Adams collects the same classification of the various theories and their exponents that point to explain the extinction of the Mayan civilization, in the following order:

  1. Environmentalism:
    • soil depletion (Cook y Sanders)
    • lack of water and erosion (Cooke y Ricketson)
    • Savannah mount challenge (Cooke y Morley)
  2. Catastrophes:
    • earthquakes (Mackie)
    • Hurricanes
  3. Development (Meggers)
  4. Diseases (Lockers)
  5. Demography (COWGILL the Huchinson)
  6. Social structure (Thompson, Altschuler Y Kidder)
  7. Invasion (Adams, Cowgill, Sabloff y Willey)

These theories on the collapse of Mayan culture are analyzed below by Velasquez (1997: 175-182) in the order mentioned above:

The theories of ecological begin to expose since 1920. Cook argues that milpa agriculture involves the destruction of soil, proliferation and herbs. In 1962, Sanders concludes that slash (slash and burn), used by the Maya, its collapse occurred because drastically affected its ecosystem. In 1937, Ricketson theorized that this type of agriculture led to the rains eroded the Maya lands, causing their ruin. Finally Morley, 1946 suggested that the Mayan system of planting the forest became grassland, they then could not be used to grow, lack of tools for plowing.

Mackie is one of the few examples of this theory. This author suggested reconsidering the possibility that the earthquakes have had much to do with the abandonment of the land by the Maya, as observed by him in the ruins of Belize Benque Viejo. Few other authors attribute to Caribbean hurricanes devastating effect, which may well dismantle the populations. However, as Morley points, no region of the world that has been abandoned because of ongoing seismic activity.

Betty Meggers (1954) is the figure that embraces this theory. He claims that the decline of the Mayan empire was due to the limited agricultural potential of the areas where this culture developed, so to get this expansion to higher level, exhausted its productive source was unable to move forward. This theory are refuted by William Coe (1957), who claims that the Maya lands considered, suitable agricultural potential to sustain development levels higher than those achieved by the Maya.

Lockers (1928) advocates the theory that the appearance of yellow fever had to do with the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Other scholars such as Morley, claim that this disease, as syphilis and a number of other diseases of infectious, came to America during the Spanish conquest. However, in this respect, Shimkin (1973), said that it was discovered that the howler monkey of Central American forests, is a carrier of yellow fever, that is transmitted by mosquitoes and bats.

This theory, that has few supporters among modern anthropologists, is supported by Cowgil and Hutchinson, in 1963. They did a study in a small town of El Petén, in Guatemala, and found that the female birth rate was higher than the male, and argued that, if you used a statistical progression, would conclude that, if that trend continues for long, the population would gradually decline to extinction; this fact, its discretion, could have happened to the Maya.

Social structure
Thompson (1959), formulated the theory about the collapse of the social structure of the Maya as the cause of its collapse. He mentions that the rebellion of the masses Maya, three aspects:

  • economic conditions that led to a peasant uprising;
  • militarization of Maya society, to keep the ruling elite and
  • decomposition dominant system, marked by an ideology in decline.

The sum of these factors, según Thompson, determined that the people rise up against the ruling theocratic aristocracy. However, triumphant peasants, not knowing what to do with the temples and ceremonial centers, the left, and then were covered by the rainforest.

George L. Cowgill, states that the indigenous Maya collapse occurred in two stages: Mexican incursions caused a drop in the Maya, Shock resulting armed, hunger and subsequent slavery; and secondly, invasive power consolidation results in a suppression of the population, who is forced to relocate to new areas. These invaders dislocated cycle Mayan milpa agriculture, source causing the decline that ensued.


By analyzing the basic features and the various theories on the collapse of the Maya, becomes effective on the grounds that it was due to the concurrence of both internal and external factors. I tend to think that the trigger was soil depletion, caused by the intense cultivation of maize to feed a large population. The shortage of this staple may well lead to increased nutritional deficiency diseases, causing a population decline and abandonment of urban centers. Also this lack of food might cause internal rebellions of the peasants who lived on the outskirts of the city-states against the noble class and dominant priestly.

An empire like the Mayan, weakened by internal factors already mentioned, it might have been easy prey for the invasion of indigenous peoples of Mexico-external factor- that caused death, hunger, slavery, avallasamiento of the population and the collapse of Maya culture.

However, despite the disappearance of the Mayan civilization, their cultural legacy survives to this day. Besides the material component consists of the architectural and artistic, mathematical and astronomical knowledge, he must schedule, hieroglyphic writing, the wisdom contained in the codices, and cosmogony present in manuscripts such as the Popol Vuh, we have the human component and linguistic: in the Yucatan Peninsula, formed by the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan in Mexico, are estimated to live about six million Mayan descendants; in Guatemala, the 65% of the population is of Mayan origin; in Belize, a 10% their 228.000 inhabitants are Mayan origin; and in Honduras, Chortí ethnicity with 2.000 components, is related to the ancient Mayan Copan builders.

Pedro Vargas Perez
Magazine intersections © University of Costa Rica

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