Some Thoughts Concerning Collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization
by Jeeni Criscenzo
(c)1998 Jeeni Criscenzo, All Rights reserved. Not to be copied or duplicated without written permission.
I have often been asked what I thought was the dominant factor in the collapse of the Maya civilization. First, let's clarify what is meant by collapse - the collapse of the Classic civilization that occurred sometime near the end of the 9th century, was apparently a devastating event, but seems to have been contained to the Peten/highland areas. In the Northern Lowlands, sites like Coba and old Chichen Itza seemed to have continued without much of a problem for many more generations, and sites in the Puuc Hills were just beginning to flower. So I will assume your question pertains to the "demise" of the Central area sites.
Most Mayanists seem to agree that the collapse was due to a combination of problems, but none seem to agree on what was the dominant cause. Perhaps there was no dominant cause. For example, if you looked at the USSR - what would you say was the dominant cause for its collapse? I doubt you could get all contemporaries to agree - so how could we expect to reach a consensus on something that occurred long ago with no written records.
Here is my theory:
A ruler's divine status was at the core of the Maya's view of their universe. His power to influence the gods by bloodletting rituals made him a critical component to the order of things. In some way or another (self-fulfilling prophecy... power of the human mind... teamwork... who can say why...) these rulers were successful in bringing prosperity to their people and so the belief system sustained itself and the civilization grew. And success begot success. People never questioned the omnipotent power of their rulers and likewise each new generation of royalty was convinced of their own divine powers.
At some point this unquestioned belief in their rulers started to wear thin. Perhaps there was a series of natural disasters - drought, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes (maybe an extreme El Nino?) or maybe ecological stress caused crops to fail. I think that whatever these problems were, they probably instigated an increase in warfare. Rulers felt their powers were failing and the gods required more and more royal blood - their own personal bloodletting was insufficient - there was a frenzied campaign to secure other royalty to sacrifice to the insatiable gods.
What happened when these royals were captured is that they were not immediately sacrificed. They were kept for years to be bled at ritual ceremonies. Meanwhile there was no one running the show back at their homes. Their heirs could not take over leadership responsibilities because the ruler was still alive. As this frantic capturing of royalty escalated, it became very risky to be of royal blood. I think that the intellegensia started to abandon their posts. They were not brought down by their own people, they left deliberately, in fear of capture by neighboring warriors. The result was chaos. The belief system was shattered. And finally it got to the point that people just deserted the cities, and rewrote the rules - adapting their belief system as best they could (they did not have the education of the elite who had abandoned them, perhaps they couldn't even read or write.)
If this scenario is true - would you say that warfare was the dominant cause? I don't think so. I would say that the dominant cause was a belief system that couldn't hold up under a drastic change in circumstances. There is something important here for us to observe and learn from. Our civilization is also undergoing dramatic change. Our belief systems are also being questioned. Fundamentalist in all religions are trying desperately to stop change. But change is inevitable.
Will our civilization succumb as the Maya's did? And will that be a bad thing? The Maya did not disappear. They just changed the rules. They made a different life that didn't include building fantastic monuments and temples. It was a simpler, communal and highly spiritual life that continues successfully to this day (although it is being threatened by modern interference, both hostile and benign.) Eventually the Northern Lowland Maya followed suit -- abandoning their magnificent cities to live in agricultural communities. Perhaps that is where we will end up too. Two thousand years from now, will people dig up New York City and wonder caused our civilization to collapse?