Copyright

The Collapse of Mayan Civilizations Throughout Mesoamerica

Aaron Jura, Stacy Chambers
  • Author
    Aaron Jura

    Mr. Aaron Jura holds a Juris Doctor degree, a masters degree in American History, and a bachelors degree in Liberal Arts. Mr. Jura has worked as a K-12 educator for 8 years and teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Special Education in Louisiana. Mr. Jura serves as a Teacher Leader Advisor for the state department of Education and sits on numerous committees and boards supporting public education.

  • Instructor
    Stacy Chambers

    Stacy holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas at Austin and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College. She has extensive experience as a writer and an editor for a number of publications.

Learn what happened to the Mayans and when the Mayan civilization ended. Read theories about the Mayan disappearance and the collapse of the Mayan Empire. Updated: 12/06/2021

What Happened to the Mayan Civilization?

Ancient Mayans were skilled in architecture and many of their stone temple complexes are still present today.

Image showing ancient Mayan architecture.

From 250 - 900 AD, during the Classic period, the Mayan Empire was at its peak in Mesoamerica. Mayan civilizations arose in areas ranging from modern-day northern Mexico southwards into Central America as far south as El Salvador. Ancient cities grew as large as 120,000 people in some city-states during the days of the Maya. Unlike other ancient civilizations, the Maya did not have a centralized power structure and instead are believed to have been governed by a variety of leaders and king-like figures during the Classic period. While scholars continue to study the complex ancient Mayan civilization, there is little agreement on exactly why some of the large stone cities of the Maya were abandoned.

How Did the Mayans Die?

The Mayan people were eventually conquered by Spanish colonizers between 1517 and 1546 AD. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, some large, ancient Maya cities were already abandoned. Scholars today have many theories on the decline of Maya city-states; however, there is no consensus on how their population decline came to be. Many of the leading theories point to climate change as a major reason for the decline of southern lowland Mayan territories prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

Evidence uncovered by forensic meteorologists points to repeated cycles of drought and agricultural failures, leading to famines that may have caused the collapse of some territories of the Yucatan peninsula. While some city-states died off during this time period, the Maya continued to exist in other areas of the Yucatan up to the arrival of the Spanish. Once the Spanish arrived and the Roman Catholic faith was introduced by colonizers, the Mayan population centers of the northern lowlands again saw major population and cultural shifts. In fact, descendants of these later Mayan city-states are still present in modern-day Mexico and Central America.

When Did the Mayan Civilization End?

While the ancient Mayan stone structures still stand throughout modern-day Mexico and Central America, the once-thriving civilization is no longer around. While Spanish colonization had a major impact on the sustainability of ancient Mayan civilizations, many scholars point to population shifts during the Classic Period as leading to the abandonment of city-states in the southern lowlands of the Yucatan. Leading scholars point to human versus environmental factors that may have led to this large shift from the south to the north. Northern lowland cities continued to thrive, even after the collapse of some of the southern lowland city-states of the ancient Maya.

The influences of the Maya still exist today. Mexican and Central American cuisine demonstrates the culinary influences of the ancient Maya still present in modern-day society. Maize, chili peppers, and honey were all staple ingredients of the ancient Mayan diet. These ancient ingredients are still highly visible in the cuisine of the region once inhabited by the ancient Maya. Language from the ancient Maya is also still present throughout the region. Ancient Mayan languages are still spoken, most widely in modern-day Guatemala, by nearly 6 million people.

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.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Oceania Theory: Overview

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 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
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

Classic Maya Collapse Theories

Ancient Mayans were skilled artisans and had a complex society in Mesoamerica.

Image of Mayan pottery.

There are a number of theories explaining the Maya collapse and only a few primary source materials exist today from the period. Scholars do not completely agree on why the classic Maya civilizations ended; however, it is possible that many of the factors described below were interrelated and compounded the impact that led to the ultimate downfall of some Mayan population centers. Drought, famine, disease, and the effects of warfare may have all contributed to the downfall of the ancient Mayan civilization.

The Mayan Civilization Declined Due to Drought

The decline of the ancient Maya has been tied directly to climate-related concerns that may have gravely impacted Mayan city-states and their ability to sustain the agricultural production needed to supply their cities. Scholars estimate that at the height of the Classic period, Mayan cities had a population density of 200-400 people per square mile. To put this into context, this number represents the modern-day population density of states like California and New York. In order to maintain the levels of agricultural production required to support the dense city-states of the Maya, rapid production would have been required, which could have been nearly impossible in many lowland territories during periods of repeated drought.

Agricultural methods may have heightened the risk to the environment, thus creating the conditions which would ultimately lead to the collapse of some societies of the ancient Maya. Many ancient Mayans utilized slash and burn farming methods to deforest land and prepare it for planting. Slash and burn farming consists of cutting down the tropical vegetation of the region and then lighting it ablaze to clear the land of the debris. This method of farming has been tied to the decline of some Mayan city centers as the slash and burn technique did not yield nutrient-rich soil, allowing for only a few years of crops per acre.

Starvation

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.

Drought

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.

Disease

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Video Transcript

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.

Starvation

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.

Drought

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.

Disease

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What destroyed the Mayan Empire?

There are a variety of factors that led to the decline of ancient Mayan civilization. Scholars have identified climate change as a major factor for the decline of some lowland Mayan societies. Warfare between various Mayan city-states also has been identified as a cause of the decline of their ancient civilizations. Disease both pre and post colonization also contributed to end of the Mayan civilization.

When did the Mayans collapse?

The period most often identified as the time in which the Mayan civilization began to collapse is known today as the Classic to Post-Classic period. The Classic period represents the period of drought, warfare, and early disease. This period is often defined today using the dates of 250 - 900 AD; however, evidence exists that points to other issues in the Post-Classic period leading up to Spanish colonization in the 1500s.

What disease did the Mayans die from?

Modern scholarship identifies several parasitic diseases that impacted Mayan life during the classic period, which may have ultimately led to their downfall. The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors during the 1500's also introduced diseases such as smallpox, which the ancient Maya did not have immunity to.

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Resources created by teachers for teachers

Over 30,000 video lessons & teaching resources‐all in one place.
Video lessons
Quizzes & Worksheets
Classroom Integration
Lesson Plans

I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.
Teacher
Jennifer B.
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account