The Maya Apocalypse

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Maya were one of the most impressive societies of the pre-Columbian World. For around a millennium and a half, they dominated the Yucatan Peninsula – the Central American landmass separating the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico. In that time, they made mathematical breakthroughs, developed a sophisticated calendar and built the famed stone pyramids of the Americas. Then, their world collapsed. Between 750 A.D. and 900 A.D., the Maya population plummeted by 90%, and once thriving cities such as Tikal decayed into ruins. Their calendars fell out of use, their art disappeared and their political institutions imploded. Unlike the falls of the later Inca and Aztec Empires, however, the Maya Collapse was not caused by Spanish conquistadors or European diseases. Instead, a combination of petty warfare, societal fragility and ecological disaster was responsible for ending a pre-Columbian golden age.  

The Maya had built their civilisation entirely off the back of human labour. No large land mammals are indigenous to Mesoamerica, and so the Maya could never domesticate animals to lessen their workload. The Maya people needed to not only form a society, but also serve as its mules, oxen and horses. In many ways, this makes the numerous achievements of the Maya still more impressive, yet it also meant life was extremely labour-intensive. Farming the Yucatan was a nasty, painful and time-consuming affair, since the Maya had to plough their agricultural land entirely by hand. 

The Aztecs were later able to overcome their lack of domesticable animals by cultivating chinampas – small squares of land on shallow lakes, which permanently irrigated crops – but the Maya never developed similar techniques. Crop yields were relatively low, meaning that, even in the best of times, the Maya only possessed a small food surplus. Nor was it possible to horde food in preparation for shortages; 70% of the average Mayan’s diet consisted of corn, which could only be stored for a single year before it rotted in the humid climate.

Geography only made matters worse. In the densely populated Southern Yucatan, most cities lay in the uplands, away from the rivers and lakes. The primary rock in the south, karst, is highly porous and permeable, and so water in that region does not pool on the surface to form lakes or reservoirs which could irrigate crops. Moreover, the Southern Yucatan is at an extremely high elevation, meaning that underground water reservoirs are too far below the surface to access with wells. Though the Maya did have some reservoirs of water, they could not use these for irrigation, ensuring that – although thirst was never a problem – starvation hung above their society’s collective throat like Damocles’ dagger. 

The Maya were aware of this threat and attempted to find a solution. Ironically, their efforts only made matters worse. As the Maya population rose but the amount of available land remained finite, Malthusian economics kicked in and shortages occurred. The desperate Maya began over-cultivating existing farmland, accidentally reducing its long term productivity. Mass deforestation occurred, but the new lands cleared were themselves relatively unproductive. The land was leached of nutrients and easily eroded, since the tree roots were no longer present to hold the soil together. Instead, soil was carried down to the valley floor, covering and making unproductive what would otherwise have been fertile land. In Copan (a region in modern Honduras) especially, the Maya almost completely cleared the upland region of trees. The inhabitants of Copan must have quickly come to regret their choice; skeletons from the region possess unusually low bone and teeth densities, revealing that malnourishment was prevalent. Panicked attempts to increase food yield had achieved the exact opposite. 

Unfortunately, worse was to come. Forests play a key role in regulating the water cycle, and so deforestation inevitably leads to increasingly erratic weather and greater extremes between the peaks and troughs of rainfall. Even in the best of times, the Yucatan Peninsula has a notoriously unforgiving climate. Between 760 and 910 A.D., however, the Maya suffered a series of prolonged droughts – the most severe the region saw in seven millennia. Rainfall decreased by as much as 70%, and the Maya endured a megadrought that lasted a century. The Maya food supply, always tenuous, plummeted in these years. 

As environmental conditions grew dire and the food supply dwindled, squabbling became incessant. Maya civilisation was divided into minute fiefdoms; most kingdoms and city states had populations lower than 50,000, and none exceeded 500,000. Unlike the later Inca and Aztec Empires, there was never a single Maya state which could organise a centralised response to the crises. Instead, most leaders remained focused on their short-term interests in waging war and competing with other cities. As conditions grew steadily worse, the number and intensity of conflicts continued to rise, finally peaking just before the final years of the Collapse. Around 830 A.D., Maya from a nearby kingdom stormed the ancient city of Aguateca, sacked it and left it in ruins. Arrowheads were produced with increasing frequency, and cities quickly acquired defensive fortifications. These endless petty struggles meant that swathes of productive land went uncultivated due to fears of pillaging, decreasing the food supply further still and making cultivated lands yet more valuable. Meanwhile, all important in-land trade networks between the myriad Maya kingdoms shuddered to a halt, due to the unsafe world created by ceaseless struggle. A vicious cycle set in, where the incentives for war created conflicts that only increased the incentives for future wars. 

No written records detail the years of the Maya Collapse itself. Nonetheless, the period appears to have been extremely chaotic and bloody. As the 9th Century progressed, the Maya struggled to muster the resources needed for vast projects, and raised fewer and fewer monuments. Eventually, the people began blaming the Maya monarchs, and the rulers of the great city-states simply vanish from the records. Nothing is said of their successors, suggesting the Maya kings fell to revolutions instead of transfers of power from one family to another. The royal palaces were left abandoned, and the Mayan political order collapsed as the people lost faith in their regional governments. 

Diseases caused by malnutrition spread quickly in the densely packed population centres. Without the ability to import food and the constant fear of attack, these cities became centres of suffering. Most Maya, understandably, seem to have fled north, where their civilisation would endure, but in a weakened state. There, the Maya had easier access to water (since the elevation was lower than in the Southern Yucatan), and they would continue to dwell there for centuries. The Maya would not, however, summit the heights of the Classical Age again. Tikal, Copan and Calakmul were all deserted by the early 10th Century; their leaders had vanished and their people had died or fled. The golden age of the Maya had come to a close. 

A multitude of factors combined to cause the Maya Collapse. Overconsumption, overpopulation and ecological degradation only exacerbated deep-rooted issues of water and food supply. These forces combined to create the most severe drought of millennia. All the while, Maya elites not only failed to react appropriately, but actually worsened the crisis through their attempts to hoard power. The story of the Maya Collapse is the tale of how an advanced civilisation was brought down by its environment, and should serve as stark warning to the societies of the present.

Diamond, J., 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin

Diamond, J., 1998. Guns, Germs and Steel. Vintage

Gill, R., 2001. The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life and Death. University of New Mexico Press.

Webster, D., 2002. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse. Thames and Hudson.