The growth of the great Mayan civilization is as much a mystery as its disappearance.
Scientists have long wondered what exactly happened in the ninth century A.D., when the flourishing Maya civilization in Mesoamerica fell into what would be a permanent decline, its once-great cities reclaimed by jungle. More recent research revealed the Maya also experienced an earlier collapse, in the second century, about which scientists know even less. In a new study, based on the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single Maya site, a team of researchers argues that both collapses were preceded by similar patterns, as waves of social instability, warfare and political crises swept over the civilization and caused it to deteriorate.
For more than a decade, a team led by researchers from the University of Arizona has been working at the archaeological site of Ceibal in northern Guatemala. After assembling a record-setting 154 radiocarbon dates, the researchers have been able to develop a highly precise chronology that illuminates the patterns that led up to the two collapses that the Maya civilization experienced: the Preclassic collapse, in the second century A.D., and the more well-known Classic collapse some seven centuries later.
One of the most dominant civilizations in Mesomerica, the Maya reached their peak around the sixth century A.D., constructing impressive stone cities and making advances in agriculture, calendar-making and mathematics, among other fields. But by A.D. 900, those great stone cities were mostly abandoned. Theories about what caused the Classic Maya collapse have ranged from overpopulation to ongoing military conflict between competing city-states to some catastrophic environmental event, such as an intense drought—or some combination of all of those factors.