Archaeologists have long debated the cause of the collapse of the Mayan civilizations. The civilization that has received the most attention was the one that fell in the 9th century AD (known as the Classic Collapse) when most of these ancient peoples’ settlements were abandoned.
Recent work done on the Mayan civilization has shown that the collapse of the 9th century was the second such implosion, with the first having occurred in the 2nd century AD (named the Preclassic Collapse), an event that is understood even less.
Until recently, the simplistic answer as to why these societies collapsed was warfare, and to a degree this is correct. Painstaking work undertaken by a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, led by Takeshi Inomata, a professor at the School of Anthropology, has shown that the reasons for the collapse appear to be much more complex.
The implosion of both civilizations seems to have followed similar routes, with waves of social unrest alongside war and political uncertainty leading up to the ultimate rapid downfall of almost all the cities.
The team of archaeologists undertook a decade of methodical fieldwork at Ceibal in Guatemala. Using an incredibly detailed chronology, or timeline, generated by no less than 154 radiocarbon dates from the ceramic artifacts excavated in a stringently-controlled archaeological dig, Inomata and his team showed how population numbers and the construction of buildings rose and fell.
This new data put paid to the previous views that Mayan society collapsed in a gradual pattern. Their timeline shows waves of political catastrophes followed by recoveries that eventually led to the final collapse.
This new information still does not explain completely why the Mayan kingdoms collapsed but does give a far better insight into the events leading up to it. The research team was struck by the eerie similarities between the lead up to both collapses, yet the recovery and political arrangements after each collapse were very different.
After the Preclassic collapse in the 2nd century AD, political power became increasingly centralized, and the rise of a dynasty with a divine ruler came about. After the second collapse, the highly centralized political power system was slowly decentralized, and trade by sea gained importance.
It is fascinating how the improvement on dating through radiocarbon methodology has allowed for the more precise dating that has allowed this team to draw up such a precise and detailed timeline. In turn, this new chronology has allowed for a more precise examination of the factors that led to the collapse of these advanced civilizations.