The Mysterious Missing Maya?

Another week, another theory on what the mysterious Classic Maya collapse. As a reminder, the Classic Maya period took place in the southern Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, starting around 200 AD. By 900 AD, this highly-advanced civilization had abandoned its great cities and seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth. So, what caused the mysterious Maya collapse?

What caused the Mysterious Maya Collapse?
What Caused the Mysterious Maya Collapse?
Description: David Meyer at the Maya Ruins at Tikal

The Mysterious Maya Collapse?

Over the years, a number of theories have been put forth to explain this “collapse,” ranging from invasion to epidemics to most recently, climate change. Last week, another theory emerged to grab the headlines. Like many others, it blames the collapse on climate change…as well as religion. Here’s a quick taste on this latest Maya collapse theory from Fox News:

Reoccupying elevated interior areas with large numbers of people would require intense labor to re-establish water management systems, helping to explain why they were left abandoned, the researchers noted. In contrast, dwelling in the neighboring, low-lying areas was less challenging, and evidence suggests that sites there were typically occupied continuously even when the major political and economic networks they were linked with collapsed.

At the same time, the Classic Maya would have implicated gods and their “divine” rulers for the collapse. In that way, their abandoned territories became thought of as chaotic, haunted places, and reclaiming any lands from the forest was at best done with great care and ritual. Survivors in outlying sites may often not have bothered…

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Most of our regular readers know we don’t place a lot of credence in the various climate change theories, all of which are far more problematic than the media would have you believe. Now, its possible the Classic Maya stayed away from their former cities out of religious concerns. However, there is an equally plausible explanation. Perhaps they just found themselves living a far better life after the “collapse” and saw no reason to return to their former cities. Here’s more on the Maya collapse from us here at Guerrilla Explorer:

I want to suggest another theory to explain the Classic Maya collapse…namely, excessive centralization. This theory is best expressed by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies.

As a society faces problems, it becomes more complex in order to solve them. A central government creates “solutions” which consume resources and cause yet more problems. The society becomes increasingly complex, leading to the necessity of even more complex solutions. Eventually, the costs of maintaining such a complex society outweighs the benefits at the individual level. When problems arise – things like drought or invasion – the collapse of the society is more desirable than the alternative. At that point, the civilization undergoes a process of simplification.

Historians tend to favor the collective over the individual. So, they often see the collapse of a complex society as a bad thing. And indeed, societal collapse is often bad for elites. However, it can be a blessing for the average individual, leaving that person far better off. Consider it from the point of the individual. For hundreds of years, Maya peasants were forced to support the construction of gigantic monuments and agricultural projects as well as fight in various wars. However, many of these things were of little benefit to the individual. In fact, the health and nutrition of peasants deteriorated throughout the Classic Maya period. For many of these people, the loss of complexity brought individual improvement.

The mystery of what triggers caused the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization remains a mystery. Perhaps it was drought. Maybe it was war or disease. And we still don’t know what happened to the people of that civilization. Many of them may have died from the immediate triggers. There is also evidence to suggest they merely moved north, precipitating the rise of Chichen Itza in the northern Yucatán. Regardless, it would appear that the seeds for destruction for the Classic Maya were sewn many years earlier, thanks to excessive centralization.

(See more on the Classic Maya collapse at Guerrilla Explorer)

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