Here is the story of the beginning,
when there was not one bird,
not one fish,
not one mountain.
Here is the sky, all alone.
Here is the sea, all alone.
There is nothing more
–no sound, no movement.
Only the sky and the sea.
Only Heart-of-Sky, alone.
And these are his names:
Maker and Modeler,
So begins the creation story of the Maya. Heart of Sky wants to create beings that can praise him and can keep a record of time, but he fails time and again, creating the world, animals, and monkeys in the process. Eventually, he creates talking humans out of yellow and white corn and this succeeds.
The story tells us two important things about the Maya culture. First, they kept calendars and used them to record their history. This was mainly applied to the kings; the accurately dated monuments helped us to know which royals where in charge in which years. Second, the story shows the importance of their main food staple. In spite of the botanical wealth of Mexico, the Maya agriculture was dominated by a simple, and not actually all that nutritious, food: corn (also known as maize). The land they lived in, in effect a seasonal rain forest, was marginal for agriculture. And still they managed to build an empire which lasted for a millennium and a half. The abandoned cities dot the land, now overgrown by the forests. Where once tens of thousands lived, in an empire of millions, only hidden ruins are left. This truly is the world of Ozymandias, transposed from desert to rain forest. The Maya are still there: they are the local population. But after gaining the gift of history, they lost it completely. Part of that is due to the Spanish who burned their books wherever they found them. But there is more. Time and again the Maya suffered massive setbacks, until eventually the entire empire crumbled.
Horace Smith’ Ozymandias (the lesser known of the two poems of this name) wonders about the impression of majestic but empty ruins:
We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
Prehistory: the peoples of Central America
Let’s go back to the start. The Maya are part of a kaleidoscope of cultures and nations who occupied prehistoric Central America. They came from the south, and expanded from their heartland in Guatemala into the Yucatan. The Maya were isolated but not alone. Across the Gulf of the Mexico was the mysterious Olmec empire. The Olmec left strange big-headed statues and were the first here to build pyramids. They disappeared around 300 BC. Southwest of the Olmec was the land of the Zapotec, in Oaxaca. They had domesticated corn and possibly developed writing. North of them was the Mexican heartland, home of the metropolis of Teotihuacán. We don’t have a name for the civilization which lived there and which disappeared in the 6th century. After them came the Toltecs, who dominated central Mexico until after 1000 AD and who had some influence in the northern Yucatan. From 1400 onward, the Aztec empire grew here and they rapidly took over much of Mexico.
In this ever-changing world, the Maya were notably long-lasting. Their history spans as much as five thousand years, and their empire lasted in various forms for some 2000 years. They were anything but mayflies! They were powerful and successful, and the long duration showed that they had a sustainable culture. But it was not a pleasant culture: their history is violent, and torture was rife and even celebrated.
The main characteristics, their significant cities and ceremonial buildings, as well as the main food sources, were in place by 500 BC. The writing system was in place by around 300 BC. Compared to the Europe, this puts them on par with ancient Greece, and slightly pre-dates the Roman Empire. But they lasted longer than contemporary European civilizations. The Maya’s empire ended when the Spanish came. They were finally subdued two centuries after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. But by that time, the glory days of the Maya had been over for quite some time.
After the early start, technological progress had slowed down to become almost non-existent. The Maya had borrowed most of their innovations: agriculture, pyramid building, and writing arrived from elsewhere. Even the famous Maya calendar wasn’t theirs. Perhaps the need to borrow came because of their marginal location: the rain forest had few resources and it was hard to make a living. For the Maya, the stone age lasted until at least 1200 AD when bronze working arrived, but they used bronze mainly for decoration. Metal working had spread from South America a few centuries earlier, but the Maya did much less with it than the Aztec who rapidly build an empire out of it. When the Spanish arrived, the Maya stood little chance. But in their stone work, they had no equals. The pyramids still tower over the countryside; even the oldest pyramids (El Mirador) rival Giza in volume. Their stone carvings show their world in intricate and beautiful but often horrific detail.
The Maya empire stretched from modern Guatemala to the Yucatan. This was a large area. The area was linked by extensive trade roads, but the volume of trade was hampered by the lack of wagons They never developed the wheel. Neither did they have any domesticated animal that could pull or carry. Slaves were used as beasts of burden, but slaves needed to carry their own food and this severely limited how far they could go. Much of the trade was done by water, using canoe. The empire was focussed around several major cities but because of the difficulty in travel, these remained fairly independent. And there was a second problem: the Mayan staple crops of maize and cassava weren’t all that nutritious. They had ample carbohydrates but were less value for protein. They were also difficult to keep for long in the humid hot season. People thus depended on what they could grow locally.
The lack of food and transport made it difficult to keep armies in the field for any length of time. But in spite of this problem, the Maya cities seemed to have been at war with each other for most of the time. The Maya empire was never an empire as such: it was a collection of warring city states. And it has been suggested that the ruling classes were also at perpetual risk of war with their own population. The royalty wholly depended on a large underclass of people: the farmers, servants and slaves. I once visited the Maya trading town of Tulum, on the Yucatan coast. All the typical Maya architecture was there, but surrounded by a wall running around the entire collection of monumental buidings. Was this against enemies? Or was it to protect the royalty inside the walls against the servant population outside?
Maya society, in spite of its longevity, could quickly fall apart when food production fell short. Perhaps this was why they were in a state of perpetual war: it kept the population down to feadable levels. Cities which lived at peace would outgrow their resources, and it was not possible to import large quantities of food. Starvation was always around the corner, punishing success.
The main cities of the Maya were Tikal, Calakmul, Copan, Chichen Itza and Mayapan. Tikal was the main centre, with a population exceeding 50,000. It came to prominence before 200 AD. There was a hiatus from 550 AD until 680 AD, when no monuments were erected. After this, normal service returned, and the city peaked around 830 AD. After that it rapidly declined. By 1000 AD, it was abandoned.
Calakmul was its main opponent. It seemed to have been politically more astute, and gained the upper hand during the hiatus. However, here too no buildings were constructed in the decade after 533. The city collapsed at the same time as Tikal, around 820 AD.
After the southern collapse, the heart of the Mayan empire shifted north. Chichen Itza grew into prominence after 900 AD and stayed that way until around 1200. After that, it became deserted. In its place, Mayapan developed nearby.
How do we know these dates so well? It is because of two things: the Maya had adopted a good calendar, and the rulers were keen to honour their own memory by naming and dating their monuments. (In the popular press it is said that the Maya invented a calendar of unique accuracy. This is wrong on both points!) The long count calendar was used to date monuments in the southern regions from 39 BC to 909 AD. It was not used much in the north, and here dates are much more uncertain.
To fall and fall again
The archaeology confirms the stop-go nature of the Maya civilization. There were five of these stops in total. The first occurred around 150 AD, when the early cities in Guatemala around El Mirador were abandoned. The cessation of construction of new monuments lasted until 200 AD. Next, the well-known Maya Hiatus runs from 534 AD to 593, affecting the Mayan heartland in Northern Guatemala. The hiatus is considered as a significant cultural break which separates the so-called Early and Late Classic periods. Third, the Maya civilization collapsed almost completely between A.D. 750 and 900. There was no real recovery in the south, and the main centre shifted to the northern Yucatan. The north collapsed around 1250 AD, or perhaps a bit earlier. Fifth, and final, Mayapan collapsed around 1450.
The Maya lived in an area which had a limited carrying capacity. The population density, and the total population which ran in the millions, pushed what the land could sustain. Although this is a seasonal rain forest, water is in surprisingly short supply. The limestone basement does not keep hold of the water, leaving a dry soil above the water table. And the water table can be tens of meters below the surface. In the north, this leads to the famous cenotes, deep dark limestone pools which make for nice swimming in the heat – but beware of the snakes so make sure the swimming is supervised. The winter period is dry. The number of people can exceed the nominal carrying capacity during times of good rains, but if the rains fail for one or more years, trouble looms. And the rainfall here is not particularly stable from year to year. The second limitation is the fertility of the soil, which never is brilliant in rain forests. It is good in the river valleys, but the hill sides are only good for short-term use, especially so after deforestation. The third weakness was the regimented structure of society, with an upper class living of the proceeds of the rest. This structure can fall apart quickly when things go wrong, for instance if a war is lost.
But there is a contradiction here. If their land and their society were so fragile, how could the Maya empire have lasted for over a thousand years? Clearly, they knew how to handle the weaknesses. For instance, there must have been a good system of water management in place. The large extent of the empire and the distributed nature, with different areas being fairly independent, also helped their robustness.
Still, the collapses show that on several occasions, the system did break down badly. Building work would stop, the population would decline, and cities might be abandoned. Sometimes there would be recovery, but sometimes not. If no recovery happened, the city would be lost to the jungle, only to be rediscovered in the past 200 years.
Collapses were not unique to the Mayans. It has happened to empires and localities around the world, not always well recognized. It has happened even in Great Britain: during the 6th century the Romanized cities, which had survived the departure of the Roman armies, quite suddenly disappeared and a lawless society of warring tribes developed. It is often attributed to the Anglo-Saxon invasion, but this may be a red herring: the Justinian plague depopulated cities around Europe at this time. This collapsed the structure of civilization which the Roman Empire had left behind. How different history could have been, had this plague not happened!
Rhymes and reasons
The traditional explanation for the near-terminal Maya collapse in the 9th century is drought. Water is most problematic in the southern area, which collapsed first. It is perhaps curious that the south is more at risk, as it gets considerably more rainfall than does the north. The north, on the Gulf of Mexico, can expect some 1300 mm rain per year, whereas the tropical south can expect 2000 mm. But much of this comes in the form of occasional tropical storms or hurricanes, and there are huge variations from year to year. The northern Maya had the advantage that the water table there is closer to the surface: the cenotes meant there was always drinking water available, even if inconveniently low for agriculture. In the south, the land is much further above the water table (apart from the river valleys, which might be prone to flooding). The Maya cities there used man-made reservoirs, storing enough water to last a year. A 2-year drought would have caused trouble, though.
The food supply was a more severe problem. Maya agriculture was based very much around corn. Other food sources were a minority, and meat was a luxury. Corn could not be kept for more than a year, and it was difficult to grow enough to feed the unproductive rulers. Food limitations was probably the main reason that the Maya cities had population of tens of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. A drought could have caused starvation. This did not happen often, judging from the fact that the cities weren’t overthrown more often: the agriculture was well managed. And the fact that the kings invariably had big buildings erected in their honour, complete with name and date, shows that there was surplus labour: this was no society on the edge. But it was also a society without a sufficiently robust safety net.
So a drought badly affecting corn growth could have had devastating consequences. And the rainfall in Central America is subject to long-term fluctuations. People have studied this through lake levels, and through growth rate of stalagmites. The lake sediment have shown that around 900 AD, sulfur levels in the lake were very high. There were other indications of low water levels: low calcite, and high 18O content. The dry period was also seen in another lake, although the dates are not identical.
The lake sediments show that the until 2500 years ago, the climate was rather wet. After that, there was a sharp increase in sulfur content, suggesting evaporation dominated, i.e. the climate became drier. The increase around 1200 BP (800-900 AD) was considered to coincide with the main Maya collapse. Hodell et al. suggested this was evidence that the collapse was caused by climate change, when the area became drier. The presence of dry periods was confirmed by a study of the growth rate of stalagmites.
Instead of climate change, the rainfall variations have also been attributed to a variation in number of hurricanes. This is related to the sea surface temperatures, but the relation between hurricanes and climate is far less clear.
These conclusions can perhaps be challenged. Slower growth of stalagmites could indicate that water drained form the surface without filtering down; deforestation could be the cause, as this can increase run-off. Lake levels can also have been affected by changes in run-off. And in this region sulfur spikes may be caused by volcanic eruptions. El Chichon, for instance, was particularly sulfur rich. However, a relation with rainfall is considered most likely. The precise relation to the Maya collapse is not clear though. The dates on both the lake sediments and the stalagmites are only accurate to 100 years at best, and it is not possible to attribute a collapse to a particular drought in the series.
The bottom line is that the existence of dry or even exceptionally dry periods is generally accepted, and that these periods are very likely to have had an effect on Maya agriculture. The lake sediments suggest that these periods typically show repeated sequences of several dry years followed by wet ones. The dates are too uncertain to proof that a particular collapse was associated to a particular drought. Neither is it shown that these particular droughts were worse than other ones that the Maya had lived through. But it appears likely that the major collapse in the Maya heartland, after 820 AD, was caused or exacerbated by drought, perhaps in combination with a population that had outgrown the available resources. It is also notable that while other collapses were often a temporary set-back, where the population in the area grew back after a while, this collapse was terminal. The Maya heartland was effectively abandoned, and its cities forgotten. A population numbering in the millions just disappeared.
There is an interesting point to make. The number and scale of the monuments increase sharply just before this collapse, with not just the kings but also other important families going for a building spree. Was that a warning sign? Did they lose control on expenditure, much like competing football clubs? Or was it the very human trait of denial, trying to proof things weren’t so bad after all, like a director of a near-bankrupt company going on a buying spree? When running, if you stumble the only way to stay upright may be to run faster! Illogical exuberance may be a sign of impending collapse.
So far, I have presented the common understanding of the Maya world and its end. It even coined a word: the process of destroying one’s livelihood by destroying one’s environment is now called eco-cide. But there is something funny. Some of the dates for when the Maya ran into trouble are known from events elsewhere in the world. Could there have been other players in the game, apart from climate and eco-cide?
The Maya world was close to the volcanic arc running from Mexico to Nicaragua. The map of the Maya world, shown at the beginning of the post, indicates the location of these volcanoes, and illustrates the problem well. And this arc is capable of very large eruptions. Guatemala has had to relocate its capital several times because of eruptions. In 1982, the eruption of El Chichon spread sulfuric ash over the Yucatan. Whenever studying the archaeology of a volcanic area, the impact of eruptions should be considered.
In this context, three of the five dates of Maya troubles stand out: 540 AD, 1250 AD and 1450 AD. All three coincide with major volcanic eruptions. In fact, these are possibly the three biggest eruptions of the past 2000 years. And that seems a bit too much of a coincidence.
The trouble started in 536. Reports in Europe tell that the Sun shone as through a haze. Reports from China agree. Centuries later, Michael the Syrian wrote about it, probably quoting the 6th century historian John of Ephesos: it is said that the sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years, that is, eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Harvests failed and starvation followed. And just when things got better, it all happened again. There was another major eruption in 540 AD. A decade of bitter cold followed, traced by the near absence of tree rings. This was the coldest decade for 2000 years or more. And in Europe, the Justinian plague moved into the weakened population. Before 536, the Persian army had over 100,000 people. Afterwards, it was down to 3,000. The triple whammy decimated Europe and started the Dark Ages.
The most likely culprit for either the 536 or the 540 eruption is Llopongo in El Salvador. This is dangerously close to the Maya: they would have been in its direct line of fire. Imagine the devastation! Everything could have come together: poisonous ash, lack of sunshine, and a cold which could have reduced the tropical rainy season. Famine could have followed. Elsewhere in Mexico, Teotihuacan, the 6th largest city in the world at the time, collapsed and was burned. The relation to the enormous eruption seems likely.The Maya could hardly not have been affected! Was Llopoango and the second eruption the direct cause of the cessation of building work in Tikal and other cities, and the Maya hiatus? It seems highly plausible.
In 543 AD, the king of Tikal was captured and killed. Why was he out in the open with insufficient protection? Perhaps it was just that his army was lacking in man power.
This event was different from the final Maya collapse, 300 years later: this time, Tikal recovered. The rulers disappeared, and the population declined but the city was not deserted. This also favours of a volcanic cause. Volcanoes can cause enormous damage, but as a one-off event, the damage is not normally ever-lasting.
The Maya collapse of 850-900 AD does not have any obvious volcanic relation. There was no major eruption at the time, as far as we know. After the collapse of the Maya heartland to the south, Chichen Itza rapidly expanded. It seems likely that refugees would have played a part in that. If drought had been the problem in the south, around Chichen Itza the water table was much higher and therefore water was more readily available. The city became the major power in the region. And suddenly, around 1250, it was gone, following cities like Tikal and Copan into history.
In the summer of 1257, Mount Rinjani in Indonesia blew up. This was a VEI7 which impacted much of the world. Again, Europe was badly affected: in London, perhaps a quarter of the population died over the next two years. The Mongol empire collapsed shortly after. And in Mexico, Chichen Itza collapsed. The date for this is not exactly known, but the reported date around 1250 is suspiciously close.
However, the dates for Chichen Itza’s collapse are disputed. The long count dating was not used here, apart from on one temple dating from 868 AD. Dates of ceramics has been used to put the peak period of the city around 1100, and the collapse at 1250. But others have argued that the different ceramics date from the same period. They have used 14C dates of wood in the temples to argue that the city time line should be shifted to much earlier, and its collapse occurred soon after that of the Maya heartland.
The uncertainty in the 14C dates of up to a century badly affects our knowledge of when and how the city went down. The revised timeline is based in part of a desire to relate the collapse to known droughts, and this potential bias means strong evidence is required, stronger than what is available. There is evidence for such a significant drought in the 11th century, when food production would have been difficult. But ceremonies continued in the cenote while the water table was low, which shows that the city was still functioning, even if perhaps not flourishing. It is possible that the carbon dates show only that construction of new monuments had ceased in the drought, but that the ceramics indicate that the city remained alive.
So, whether Chichen Itza was finished off by drought or by Rinjani, or perhaps even a combination, is not known. Although a relation to Rinjani seemed plausible from the end date of 1250, the data is too uncertain to confirm this. The city may have fallen a century or more before, or it may have continued until 1250.
After Chichen Itza collapsed, the city of Mayapan, further to the west but also in the North Yucatan, took over. Tradition has it that the city was founded after the fall of Chichen Itza, by people from that city, in 1221. But one carbon date suggests that city’s construction started a century earlier. The earliest known building in Mayapan has a long count date of 1185: the city existed by that time! Two buildings at Mayapan are very similar to buildings at Chichen Itza, so there was indeed a close relation in some ways. There was also some overlap in the ceramics.
The same studies that show early carbon dates for Chichen Itza, show that construction in Mayapan rocketed after 1250, with a second peak before 1400. As an aside, this would be consistent with a fall of Chichen Itza around 1250, but it is hardly conclusive evidence.
The city’s demise is better known, and is dated to between 1441 and 1462. The writings of the friar Landa in 1566 date the final revolt to the time period ‘Khatun 8’ which ran from 1441 to 1480. Landa is a rather controversial figure. His writings provide us with unique knowledge of the Maya culture. But he also was the one who burned many Maya manuscripts. We will never know what we lost.
This was the time of the Aztecs, who were overrunning much of Mexico. Mayapan may have become integrated into the Aztec empire. There had certainly been trading between the Aztecs and Mayapan, as shown by an indigo-coloured paint which was exported to the Aztec, and used in their murals already around 1400. The Aztec contacts may have led to the second phase of building, indicated by the carbon dates. But when the Aztec began to take over Mayapan, it caused the revolt which destroyed much of the city. At least, this is what Landa’s writing tells us.
By 1461, all building activity in the city had ceased. This puts the revolt somewhere within the 20-year period between 1441 and 1461. And it so happens that one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the last 2000 years happened exactly in that period. It was a double eruption, with the first one in 1452/3 and the second one in 1458. One of these two is often attributed to Kuwae but this association is not certain. Europe was affected most by the first of the two eruptions, whilst tree rings suggest that America suffered worse from the second eruption. Given that such an eruption happens roughly once every 500 years, the chances of an accidental coincidence between it and the fall of Mayapan is 1:25 – not so small to proof a connection, but small enough to raise strong suspicions.
Interestingly, this puts the fall of Mayapan, the last of the Maya city states, at the same time as the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. History does repeat itself, and sometimes runs in tandem.
Collapse and volcanoes
So did volcanoes play a role in the demise of the Maya? This is a multi-faceted question. The Maya build a complex civilization in a fragile environment. They lasted a very long time: the basic society they build was robust against the normal variability around them. But there were inherent weaknesses: the dependence on a very large underclass of servants or slaves, the fragmentation into warring city states, and the lack of food transport. If things fell apart and control was lost, cities could collapse so badly that the entire area had to be abandoned completely without resettlement.
It appears that such collapses were infrequent but were not uncommon. The society was robust only against normal changes. It could not cope with exceptional events. For the big collapse after 820 AD, overpopulation in combination with a major drought may have provided an insurmountable problem, a Maya ‘eco-cide’. But we don’t know enough about their society to deduce exactly how this would have happened.
For the collapse of Chichen Itza, the date is too uncertain to draw conclusions: it may be coincident with the 1257 eruption of Rinjani, but it may have happened well before. For the Maya hiatus, the case for a link to the 536/540 eruption is strong. This appears to have led to the collapse of the ruling elite, but the population density remained high enough that over time, recovery was possible. For the collapse of Mayapan, the timing suggests a likelihood that the 1452/1458 double eruption was involved, but exactly how is not clear. The city was already in political trouble, but there was no drought, and no reason why the city should have collapsed completely. We’ll call this possibly volcanic.
I have not discussed the first collapse, which happened around 150 AD and involved the wonderful site of El Mirador in Guatemala. It has pyramids so large that the first people overflying the forest thought they were volcanoes. And this pinnacle was reached at the start of the Maya empire, 2000 years ago! There is no obvious volcanic cause for the collapse. The major eruption of Taupo in 223 was much too late to be involved, neither is it known to have affected the norther hemisphere. The commonly accepted cause is deforestation, where the subsequent run-off of clay poisoned the farming land. The forest had ben cut down to provide fire wood for the production of lime, needed for the monuments. This really may well have been eco-cide, before the Maya realized the limitations of the environment. No volcano was needed: society sufficed to collapse itself.
That leaves two, possibly three, collapses with a volcanic relation. The eruptions identified as culprits are among the largest of the past 2000 years, and they are known to have caused havoc elsewhere in the world. And at least one happened in Central America. The Maya world, in spite of its timeless stability, was not immune to change. A Maya city in good shape could cope with a disaster. But those already beset with problems succumbed.
The Maya experience suggests that a society that has been stable for generations, can suddenly find its weaknesses exposed, with devastating results. Did anyone see it coming? We’ll never know.
Albert Zijlstra, February 2018