Maya Collapse

Following are excerpts from Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, 2005, Penguin Books Ltd, London, England

"Millions of modern tourists have visited the ruins of the ancient Maya civilizations that collapsed over a thousand years ago..." These sites are the remains "of the new worlds most advanced Native American civilization before the European" invasion. These "Maya cities remained deserted, hidden by trees, and virtually unknown to the outside world until rediscovered in 1839 by...John Stephens" and "the English draftsman Frederick Catherwood."

"A few quotes from Stephens’s writings will give a sense of the romantic appeal of the Maya:

The city was desolate. No remnant of this race hangs round the ruins, with traditions handed down from father to son and from generation to generation. It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her mast gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long her journey, or what caused her destruction…

Architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts which embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence….Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished….

We went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidence of their taste, their skill in art…We call back into life the strange people who gazed in sadness from the wall; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feathers, ascending the terraces of the palace and the steps leading to the temples…

In the romance of the world’s history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost… overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it."

What can we learn from this once great nation? Why did they collapse so many years ago? "How could a society that was once so mighty end up collapsing?" Are there any parallels to the situation that exist in the world today? Because the Maya civilization was so developed and left a huge number of archaeological sites the Maya people have been studied a great deal and much is known.

"It has long been suspected that many..." of the world’s societal collapses "were at least partly triggered by ecological problems: people inadvertently destroying the environmental resources on which their societies depended." How societies have damaged their environments falls into eight categories:

"The environmental problems facing us to day include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones:

"Two other phenomena...contributing to Maya collapses..." are warfare and drought.

"Archaeologists for a long time believed the ancient Maya to be gentle and peaceful people. We now know the Maya warfare was intense, chronic, and irresolvable, because limitations of food supply and transportation made it impossible for any Maya principality to unite the whole region in an empire..." Climatologist and paleoecologists have concluded that the Maya area suffered many periods of droughts with the worst peaking around the year 800, which is the same time as the classic Maya collapse.

"To summarize the Classic Maya collapse, we can tentatively identify five strands...

Another reason for the classic Maya collapse is that the society became top heavy. That is, there were too many people in the ruling or privileged class that ate up too many resources and produced little of practical value.