By Mike Toner

The Terminal Classic, the period that preceded the collapse of a number of Maya cities, is often marked by specific kinds of ceramics, such as this molded-carved vessel from Caracol in Belize. | Credit: Courtesy of A. and D. Chase, Caracol Archaeological Project
Ever since explorers John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood stumbled out of the Yucatán Peninsula’s jungles two centuries ago with headline-making tales of crumbling stone ruins, scholars have struggled to explain what happened to one of the ancient world’s most advanced civilizations known for its iconic architecture, art, writing, calendars, and an understanding of astronomy, agriculture, and mathematics.
Over the years, the collapse of the great Maya city states of the Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 900) has been blamed on warfare, uprisings, political intrigue, drought, famine, disease, migration, trade disruptions, overpopulation, and deforestation. Archaeologists now tend to agree the collapse was due to multiple causes that affected different portions of the Maya world in different ways at different times. But as the explanations have grown more complex, some scholars believe that popular perceptions about the arc of Maya history have incorrectly conflated crumbling ruins with the collapse of the civilization.
“There is incontrovertible evidence that Classic Maya civilization suffered a major decline in the central Maya lowlands,” said Belizean-born Jaime Awe, an archaeologist at Northern Arizona University and the director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project.

A kayaker approaches the entrance to Caves Branch Cave in Belize. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Maya performed more rituals in caves, including human sacrifice, during the time when many cities collapsed. | Credit: Courtesy of Jaime Awe, BVAR Project

The ruins of Temple L8-8 at Aguateca, a city located in northern Guatemala, are seen here. Aguateca was abandoned in the early A.D. 800s. | Credit: Takeshi Inomata

“Between A.D. 900 and 1100 most Maya cities in the central lowland region were abandoned. The region’s population is thought to have decreased by as much as ninety percent. That is clear evidence for decline, disintegration, or collapse.”
This late Classic Period polychrome vase was discovered in a tomb at Cahal Pech in Belize. The vessel is decorated with a band of marching warriors. Some experts believe warfare played a role in the Maya collapse. | Credit: Courtesy of Jaime Awe, BVAR Project
The Maya, however, did not disappear. “Maya civilization as a whole did not collapse,” said archaeologist Jason Yaeger of the University of Texas, San Antonio, who has investigated Maya sites in Belize. “It may not look like it did in 700 A.D. but it is still a vibrant, thriving culture. There are seven million Maya in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras today and many still speak the Mayan language.”





This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.  


| The Archaeological Conservancy 2022


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