The agonizing sunset of the maya civilization: is the monstrous drought guilty?


Author BBC Earth Robin Wiley believes that soon we will finally find out why about a thousand years ago the Maya left their striking white-stone cities.

In 1517, Spanish conquistadors went to Central America, intending to conquer the local civilization of the Maya. However, having reached the place, the colonialists found that much of this work had already been done for them.

High buildings of limestone – the classic urban landscape of one of the most highly developed societies of the ancient world – have already given up their positions under the onslaught of the jungle. The question of how the Mayan civilization met its end remains one of the most curious mysteries of world history.

Thanks to serious archaeological research that has been going on for about two hundred years, we know enough about the Maya to appreciate their impressive achievements.

At a high stage of development

Their special style in art and architecture testifies to the great skill of this people. The author of the article notes that the Maya stood at a rather high level of intellectual development. They were well versed in mathematics and astronomy and applied this knowledge in the construction of their pyramids and temples, correlating them with the precession of planets and solar eclipses.

Victim of a major catastrophe

Let’s start with what we already know. Around 850 AD, after several centuries of Mayan prosperity and dominance, they began to leave their splendid cities – one by one. Less than two hundred years from the former glory of this civilization there is no trace. Later, individual bursts of rebirth were observed, but the golden age of Maya passed forever. In addition to the enormous scale of decline, interest is evoked by the fact that for several decades of scrupulous research, archaeologists have not reached a consensus on its cause, writes Robin Wiley.

For several centuries immediately preceding the collapse of the Maya – this period from 250 to 800 AD is called classical – the ancient civilization flourished.


The heyday of the city of Tikal in Guatemala fell on the classical period of the Mayan civilization.

But according to the same data, starting around 820 AD for 95 years, these regions were periodically affected by a severe drought, which lasted sometimes up to several decades.

Since it became known about this prolonged drought, scientists began to notice a surprisingly clear relationship between the time of its onset and the decline of civilization: most Mayan cities of the classical era emptied between 850 and 925 AD, which quite accurately coincides with the arid century.

The author of the article notes that however graceful this explanation may be, it is unqualified to accept it unequivocally: although most of the Maya cities were emptied with the onset of drought, some managed to survive. Cities that were deserted in the dry IX century, were located mainly in the south of the territory occupied by the Maya – where Belize and Guatemala are now .


The decline of Maya in the 11th century occurred against a background of severe drought.

However, closer to the north, on the Yucatan peninsula , the Mayan civilization not only survived the drought, but also began to prosper again after its end. Scientists have put forward many explanations for such a striking contrast between the north and the south, but no theory has ever been found to be reliable.

However, recently a new discovery was made, shedding light on this long-standing puzzle.

In a study published in December, American and British archaeologists compared for the first time all estimates of the age of urban centers in the northern lands of Maya: about two hundred dates related to settlements located throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, half of which were obtained from the study of carved in the stone of the calendar marks, and half – by radiocarbon analysis.

Then the researchers derived general information about the times when the Mayan cities were actively developing and when each of them declined.

The results of this analysis significantly change our presentation about when, and perhaps even how, the Mayan civilization met its end.

Contrary to the earlier conviction, during the drought in the north, too, there was a decline – moreover, it happened twice.

Scientists found that in the second half of the IX century, the number of calendar records cut in stone decreased by 70%. Radiocarbon analysis also showed that the construction of wooden structures during this period also decreased. Scientists from Cambridge, Pennsylvania and Albany came to the conclusion that this decline in creative activity was due to the fact that in the north political and social collapse was brewing.

This period of decline in the north had previously gone unnoticed mainly due to the lack of a clear evidence base: a decline in construction activity, even such a large-scale, is not easily detected without conducting such a comprehensive study throughout the region.

Drought, severe drought and mega-drought

Information about the decline of the north in the IX century marks a new intriguing turn in the history of Maya, which, nevertheless, does not change its essence: after all, we already knew that the northern regions managed to survive the dry IX century – Chichen Itza and others the centers successfully developed in the tenth century.


UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsula

But the information about the second period of decline, revealed by a group of scientists, is already changing our understanding of the history of the Maya.

After a brief revival of civilization in the tenth century (which, interestingly, coincided with an increase in the amount of precipitation), scientists note another decline in construction in a number of areas of the northern Maya: between 1000 and 1075 AD, the construction of stone and other materials was reduced by almost half . At the same time, the worst drought in 2000 years was the “mega-drought”.

A comprehensive analysis, the results of which were published in December, gives us the opportunity to state with much greater certainty that climate change has coincided in time with not even one but two periods of dramatic decline in the Mayan civilization. If the first wave of drought destroyed the Mayan settlements in the south, then the second, apparently, brought death to their northern territories.

After this second wave, the Maya civilization’s drought was no longer destined to recover.

Went to the water


Starting around 1050 AD, the Maya began to embark on a journey. They left the inner lands where their ancestors prospered, and flocked to the coast of the Caribbean Sea or other sources of water, such as rare lakes and karst craters gleaming in the dense green of the former Maya territory. According to the author of the article, it is probably true that it was more reasonable to move closer to the water in order to be able to enjoy the gifts of the sea or cultivate less arid seaside lands.