By the year 500, Mayan cities had been in existence for more than three hundred years and the Maya had reached a high in economic prosperity. It is estimated that two hundred years later the Mayan population peaked. Then, between the years 750 and 900, one Mayan city after another was abandoned and much of the Mayan population disappeared. The last of the hieroglyphic writing erected in the city of Copan (Copán) was dated as the year 800. The last hieroglyphic writing in the city of Piedra Negras is dated 810. The last writing on a stele in Tikal is dated as 869. Abandoned cities, where Maya had thought their gods dwelled, became overgrown with jungle and filled with the chatter of monkeys and birds.
The few Maya who remained were on the periphery of what had been Mayan civilization. Exactly why Mayan civilization disappeared is not known. One cause dismissed by scholars is that of invasion by outsiders. Another possible cause is a decline in food production. On the skeletal remains of Maya who lived during the period of decline, archaeologists have found signs of inadequate nutrition. These remains were shorter in stature, the bones thinner, with dental enamel problems (another sign of insufficient nutrition) and more signs of disease.
Maya agriculture had been slash and burn. It required land be left fallow for five to fifteen years after only two to five years of cultivation. Agriculture had spread with the growing population, and, with agricultural fields replacing natural forest, rains may have caused much soil erosion. Also, the Maya may have had trouble with their water supply: in much of Maya country, water ponds had been used as a source of drinking water; ponds were a source of food such as frogs; and indications have been found that these ponds became silted.
A diminishing food supply would have created social upheaval and perhaps war. Warfare had been a preoccupation of Mayan lords. But with war, victors would have remained in possession of lands. Instead, the Maya had completely abandoned their lands. Wars may have helped bring down Maya civilization, along with an increase in mosquitoes and disease, but the complete abandonment of land suggests that the heart of the problem was the unavailability of food.
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