A fully developed hieroglyphic system, incomparable architecture, excellent mathematical skills, variegated religious beliefs, advanced calendars, symbolic artwork, a powerful military, impressive agricultural methods and beautiful pottery–the Mayans were mighty and sophisticated in their day. But the golden age of this highly advanced civilisation was not destined to last.
Somewhere around 900 AD, all their cities were in ruins.
Back in time
The first recorded instance of the Mayans, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, is about 4000 years ago. While their first settlements have been dated around 1800 BC, their classic period began around 250 AD. This is when Mayan cities started flourishing in what is today’s Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras and Southern Mexico.
With palaces, temples, stepped pyramids and intricate carvings–incredible cities like Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan, Copán, Tikal and Uxmal became the crowned jewels of the Mayan architecture. Their highly skilled stonemasons built two kinds of pyramids. One for sacrifice to appease the gods and the other was sacred–not to be climbed or even touched. The Mayans were known to be brilliant astronomers who accurately predicted natural phenomena, including the eclipses. Using observatories and shadow-casting devices, they plotted the movement of the sun, the stars and the planets. They invented the Mayan calendar. Each month of their calendar was ruled over by a specific god. In the Mayan system, two calendars worked together–the Haab or the civil calendar consisting of 365 days and the Tzolkin or sacred calendar consisting of 260 days. The Mayans also devised a Long Count Calendar for longer calculations. Based on this calendar, the alleged prediction of the world ending in 2012 gained traction.
As a polytheistic religion, they worshipped nature gods and had more than 165 gods. Human sacrifice was a part of their ritual practices and rivals were tortured and sacrificed to the gods. They also believed in the cyclical nature of life. The afterlife consisted of the soul’s voyage through the dangerous underworld which was populated with sinister gods. Mayans believed that only those who died during childbirth or were sacrificed could go to heaven
Most records and books of the Mayans were destroyed during the colonial era, but The Popol Vuh, a sacred Maya text, survived. The Popol Vuh has proven to be an important document for historians giving significant insights into the Mayan culture.
Today, approximately six million Maya still live on the same land as their ancestors did. Well-preserved ruins and excavated sites stand testimony to their vibrant culture. Even though their golden age mysteriously ended, the present Mayans still practice their religion and beliefs.
The Mayan civilisation was truly sophisticated in every sense of the word. While, the exact cause of their dramatic decline is still unknown, many theories reveal what could have been the reasons behind their collapse.
With gradual advancement in every field, the Mayan population too grew. According to one of the theories, the local produce might not have been enough to sustain a large populace such as theirs.
Earlier, the Mayans were thought to be peaceful people. However, deciphered hieroglyphics, later, revealed that rulers of the Mayan cities would wage wars on each other. Frequent warfare could have brought down their civilisation.
Findings of a research taken up not so long ago suggest that a drought that occurred between the periods of 800 to 900 AD was behind the decline. A deficiency in water supply might have driven the Mayans away from their lands.
With gradual advancement in every field, the Mayan population too grew. According to one of the theories, the local produce might not have been enough to sustain a large populace such as theirs. Famine could have been one of the reasons for the Maya’s fall.
Deforestation and climate change
Ceaseless chopping and burning down of trees to make room for agriculture and more cities by the Mayans might have led to rapid deforestation which in turn could have aggravated a drought. According to a study, a steep reduction in rainfall would have caused the crops to fail and the lands would have been deserted to escape starvation.
The Mayan civilisation plummeted at its peak for reasons unknown. Though unproven, most theories still point towards environmental damage as the cause of the Maya’s decline.
This leads us to an important point that along with the great legacy they have left us, the Mayans have also taught us an important lesson. We need to be careful with our natural resources before it is too late. There can be dire consequences due to our meddling with the environment. If a highly developed civilisation like the Mayans could fall, so could we.