The Mystery of the Vanishing Maya?

The Classic Maya Collapse is one of history’s greatest mysteries. How did it happen? And why do civilizations collapse?

What caused the Classic Maya Collapse?
Me at Palenque: What caused the Classic Maya Collapse?

The Classic Maya Collapse?

The Classic Maya period took place in the southern Maya lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula, starting around 200 AD (you can see one of the remnants of that civilization up above…that’s Palenque which I visited a few months ago while searching for lost Maya ruins). By 900 AD, this highly-advanced civilization had abandoned its great cities and seemingly ceased to exist. Most scholars blame the Classic Maya collapse on things like invasion, epidemics, or climate change.

Why do Civilizations Collapse?

The question of why civilizations collapse is an old one. Many modern scientists have been heavily influenced by the environment-based theories of Jared Diamond. Even as you read this, the media is all abuzz about research purporting to show the Classic Maya Collapse occurred because of “relatively modest dry spells.” The Maya used a complex water management system that depended on regular rainfall. So, when rain decreased for an extended period of time, the Classic Maya were unable to adjust. As is all the rage these days, the researchers then compare this reasoning for the Classic Maya Collapse to the present world, suggesting the need for government-led climate intervention.

“Whereas collapses were once attributed to impious or selfish rulers, or in West’s view to indolent masses, in today’s framework the sin is gluttony: ancient societies collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacities of their environments, degrading their support bases in the process. And since it happened to past societies, it could happen to us too. According to contemporary literature, the next collapse will come because all of us have consumed too many goods, eaten too much, driven too far, and produced too many children. The Greek tragedy unfolds even as numerous Cassandras (including Diamond and Caldararo) warn us to mend our ways. Some students of ancient societies perceive in this development that we now have an opportunity to contribute to broad social thought, even to human well-being. There is, however, another strand of thought that holds humans blameless. Collapses happen.” ~ Joseph Tainter, Collapse, Sustainability, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed

The Problem of Excessive Centralization?

I don’t want to get into Diamond’s work or the various climate change theories, all of which are highly problematic. Instead, I want to suggest another theory to explain the Classic Maya collapse…namely, excessive centralization. This theory is best expressed by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies.

As a society faces problems, it becomes more complex in order to solve them. A central government creates “solutions” which consume resources and cause yet more problems. The society becomes increasingly complex, leading to the necessity of even more complex solutions. Eventually, the costs of maintaining such a complex society outweighs the benefits at the individual level. When problems arise – things like drought or invasion – a civilization collapse is more desirable than the alternative. At that point, the civilization undergoes a process of simplification.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Historians tend to favor the collective over the individual. So, they often see the collapse of a complex society as a bad thing. And indeed, societal collapse is often bad for elites. However, it can be a blessing for the average individual, leaving that person far better off. Consider it from the point of the individual. For hundreds of years, Maya peasants were forced to support the construction of gigantic monuments and agricultural projects as well as fight in various wars. However, many of these things were of little benefit to the individual. In fact, the health and nutrition of peasants deteriorated throughout the Classic Maya period. For many of these people, the Classic Maya collapse brought about individual improvement.

The mystery of what triggers caused the Classic Maya Collapse remain a mystery.  Perhaps it was drought. Maybe it was war or disease. And we still don’t know what happened to the people of that civilization. Many of them may have died from the immediate triggers. There is also evidence to suggest they merely moved north, precipitating the rise of Chichen Itza in the northern Yucatán. Regardless, it would appear that the seeds for the Classic Maya Collapse were sewn many years earlier, thanks to excessive centralization.

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