Mayan Disappearance: Theories & Concept

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  • 0:04 Rise and Fall of the Mayans
  • 1:00 Starvation
  • 1:35 Drought & Climate Change
  • 2:32 Disease & Warfare
  • 3:55 Combination of Factors
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Chambers
For many years, archaeologists have studied the collapse of the Maya civilization. Learn the different theories archaeologists believe were responsible for the downfall of the Maya.

Rise and Fall of the Mayans

Emerging from the rainforests of southern Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Central America to become one of the most sophisticated societies during its time, the Maya had a dense population. At its peak (around 750 CE), the civilization's population topped 13 million.

While its population boomed, the Maya elite created systems of astronomy and mathematics. They created an accurate, 365-day calendar. They created a writing system of hieroglyphics. They built their cities using technology we're only beginning to understand. While Europe struggled through its Dark Ages, the Maya were in a golden age. But by 950 CE, the Mayan civilization had collapsed. No one knows for certain how it happened, and no one knows for sure how many people died. Archaeologists have different theories, which include starvation, drought, climate change, disease, and warfare.


The Maya were farmers and fed their people through agriculture. One of the main ways they made room for their fields was through the slash-and-burn method, where they cut down all the trees and foliage in an area and burned what was left. Then, they planted their crops. Rainforest soil is not nutrient-rich, so this method would have only yielded 3 to 5 years worth of crops. As the land eroded and was depleted of nutrients, each subsequent year would have produced less and less food. Eventually, the Maya would not have been able to produce enough food to feed everyone.


Archaeologists have learned that the Maya were subjected to a series of droughts, which occur when there is not enough rainfall in an area to sustain its vegetation. Not having the technology to find water underground, the Maya were completely dependent on rainfall for their water supply.

Though the Yucatan is lush with vegetation, it's a seasonal desert, which means that it depends on summer rainfall to sustain it. If summer rainfall was light or didn't come at all, the Maya would experience a drought. Over time, the Maya learned to manage their water effectively, but repeated droughts would have tapped their reserves.

Climate Change

It's also possible the Mayans' slash-and-burn method of farming exacerbated the problem of drought. Deforestation would have increased the earth's temperature, which would have in turn made droughts more severe and long lasting. Even with the Maya's effective water management, this would have made for water and food shortages, since without water the Maya couldn't grow food.


Spanish explorers came to the Maya late in the civilization's existence, well after the first major collapses of their civilization. They carried diseases unknown to the Maya and for which the Maya had no natural immunity. Once these diseases, such as smallpox, spread, they killed the Maya in droves, along with Native Americans from other civilizations, such as the Aztecs.

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