Why did the Maya civilization collapse?

Why did the Maya civilization collapse?

By the early 8th century the Maya civilization
was at its zenith. Building and maintaining cities of such scale that future explorers
hypothesized that they must have been built by lost tribes of Israel or the Phoenicians.
But only 150 years later the flourishing Classic Maya civilization had crumbled, undergoing
one of the most devastating social and demographic upheavals in human history. Yet the Maya wouldn’t
succumb to Spanish control until 1697, nearly 200 years after the Aztecs and Inca. The great
collapse and fall of the Maya are a story of change, triumph and tragedy, where ancient
thrones will be shattered but from them new powers will emerge. There is no disputing that the Maya civilisation
in the southern lowlands underwent some sort of collapse. The prevailing question is, why?
Unfortunately, we do not have any records of the collapse from the Maya themselves.
The stelae that we rely upon usually focus on the lives of god-kings rather than agricultural
yields and the books that may have contained these records have been reduced to ash.
What we do know is that in the 8th and 9th centuries alliances began breaking down, trade
declined, and intense conflicts spiraled out of control. The greatest example of this is
the Tikal-Calakmul wars we saw in the previous video.
By 830 AD the large-scale constructions that we associate with the Maya had mostly stopped
and at Itzimte we see the final date carved on a stela – the 16th of January 910, which
marked that one of humanities brightest lights, the Classic urban civilization of the Maya
was at an end. Similar to the fall of Rome or the Hittites, we know that there is more
than one single reason for the collapse. Most Mayanists agree that 3 major factors
led to the Classic Maya collapse: Warfare, Environmental Collapse, and Drought.
We’ll start with warfare first because it seems to have the earliest arriving cause.
As these increasingly frequent wars continued to plague the southern lowlands the level
of violence and destruction they brought increased. The Maya kings had been warring since the
pre-Classic period, but things had escalated and warfare was now interrupting the daily
lives of the common people. The gorgeous temples and palaces that once
glorified Maya cities were turned to rubble, some even torn down in order to build fortifications,
which began to spring up around once un-walled Maya cities. Some cities even had defensive
walls that passed right through the middle of them. Settlements began to regress, pyramids
lay unfinished and kings unburied. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the cities
from the countryside, swelling their populations. Tikal which had a population between 60-80
thousand for most of its history may have skyrocketed to 200,000 during this period.
This was compounded by environmental issues. As we discussed in the first video in this
series the Yucatán is quite a hostile environment and the Maya needed to develop ingenious and
costly methods to thrive within it. In order to fuel their ever-growing cities and to make
the plaster that covered them massive swaths of forest had to be cleared. This deforestation
increased soil erosion in an environment in which soils were already quite thin. The success
of the Maya city-states was sowing the seeds of their destruction.
The final fatal factor, was drought. The Maya were one of the most adept civilizations when
it came to drought management. Their aqueducts and cisterns still dotted the jungles that
have consumed their cities. However, the sheer length of the droughts that struck them between
800 and 1100 AD was apocalyptic. There was a 40-year drought between 820-860,
another around 930 and then from 1000 – 1100 there was another. A 100-year long drought.
The area was already suffering from incessant warfare. Soils were less productive than ever.
Kings were embroiled in century long rivalries and now farmers had to plant seeds of corn
into the dry dirt year after year, only to see nothing sprout. All that was left to do
was curse the gods…or the person who was supposed to maintain their favour, which in
Maya culture was the king! Now that the Maya kings had failed to please
the gods and bring down the rains the people may have risen up against them. Bloody revolutions
could have been the tragic final act for these cities and the position of divine Kingship
in Maya society dwindled or was cut away. Any of these factors individually could probably
have been easily overcome by the Maya. The destruction from endless wars could have been
healed, drought could be managed, new farming methods can be developed and new political
systems implemented. But all of these together spelled disaster. Complex and compounding
factors are what brought it about. But what happened to the survivors of this
collapse? Not everyone died, the southern lowlands had a population in the millions.
It is a great mystery of archaeology but we do have some records of them migrating north.
During this period, the Terminal Classic, the northern cities such as Chichen Itza and
Uxmal began to soar. So, while the southern lowlands ceased to create monuments or house
giant cities the northern lowlands actually flourished. The Maya did not disappear after
their collapse which is an extremely popular misconception rather their civilization underwent
a massive shift. Chichen Itza rose to become a major regional
power. By adapting to the political changes brought about by the collapse. Such as abandoning
god-kings and replacing them with ruling councils and by dominating the trades routes in the
region, especially salt, it became the political center of the northern lowlands from the 10th
to the 13th century. Building famous structures like El Castillo which during the Spring and
Autumn equinoxes, creates an awe-inspiring effect of a serpent wriggling down its staircase.
Mayapan took over the title of regional power after Chichen Itza declined in the 11th century.
But it itself would be abandoned in 1448 for reasons similar to the collapse earlier. This
period saw a series of natural disasters and increased warfare that would only end around
1511. At which point the Spanish arrived. This is the beginning of the end for independent
Maya civilization. To understand this conflict, we need to understand what the Spanish brought.
First, were diseases previously unknown on the continent. Smallpox, influenza, and measles
wreaked havoc on native populations in what is probably the most unparalleled destruction
of life in human history. Within a hundred years 90% of the native population was gone.
While the Maya were the first of the Mesoamerican civilizations to have contact with the Spanish
they were spared for a few years, as the gold-rich Aztecs in Mexico drew their attention instead.
The Spanish conquest of the Maya only truly began in 1528, spearheaded by Pedro de Alvarado
and his brothers, veterans of the conquest of the Aztecs. Taking down the Maya would
not be a short affair. Unlike the Aztecs or Inca, the Maya did not
have a central authority that could be kidnapped. The Maya themselves also fought in a different
fashion to the Aztecs. They attacked Spanish camps at night, lay
traps for them in the jungle, and deployed rapid hit and run tactics. The fighting in
those jungles was unlike anything the Spanish had dealt with before.
Smallpox had reached some parts of the Maya area even before the conquistadors began their
invasion. When the Alvarado brothers entered those jungles and cities they were walking
through an already post-apocalyptic landscape, as the germs had initiated a deadly blitzkrieg
assault before they could. Resistance was still fierce however. It wasn’t
until 1542 that the Spaniards could even establish a capital in the region, Mérida. The Spanish
had to invade and conquer each Maya city or group separately. When they finally established
control over one region as soon as they moved to the next it would rebel.
As the conquistadors underwent their incredible conquest they were accompanied by thousands
of natives from both Mexico and the Maya area, some of them already veterans from previous
conquests. Certain powerful Maya families, rulers, and cities saw the short-term benefit
that siding with the Spanish could bring. We have a cloth painting from the era, showing
these allies assisting conquistador Jorge de Alvarado in his campaign of 1527 to 1529.
In 1541 the Maya were granted a brief respite when Pedro de Alvarado died, but the most
powerful Maya kingdoms such as the K’iche and Kaqchikel were also at an end. Without
them a large-scale resistance would be impossible and the chance of a unified Maya resistance
to the conquistadors was gone. The final holdout against the Spanish was
the city of Nojpetén, which was controlled by the Itza people. It was located in the
middle of a lake in Northern Guatemala and surrounded by defensive walls. This city wouldn’t
be taken until 1697 when Martín de Urzúa assaulted the city with a large attack boat
outfitted with cannon and mortars. The population of the city attempted a last stand. They swarmed
the boat with canoes but were beaten back and shot in the water as they tried to swim
away. The city was bombarded and taken on the 10th of March 1697.
But the resistance never truly halted for the Maya. Rebellions by the Yucatec Maya in
1847 and 1860 came close to retaking the entire Yucatan. In 1910 came another rebellion against
the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz and the Zapatista National Liberation Army has
challenged the Mexican authorities since the initial uprising of 1994.
Today there are 7 million Maya living in Guatemala, southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula,
Belize, El Salvador, and western Honduras. Some have integrated into the Hispanic Mestizo
culture while others continue to live a more traditional life, still speaking one of the
over 30 Mayan languages and counting the passing days on ancient calendars.
The Maya are an odd example of a civilisation, they have been a part of human history for
an incredibly long time. They have risen and fallen and risen and fallen a number of times.
They have been invaded by foreign powers and dealt with apocalyptic disease yet they still
have never truly been conquered as their culture and spirit has seemingly continued unbroken
until this day. Thank you for watching the last episode in
our series on the Maya. We will son conclude our series on the pre-Columbian America and
move on to other regions, so make sure you are subscribed to our channel. We would like
to express our gratitude to our Patreon supporters, who make the creation of our videos possible.
Now, you can also support us by buying our merchandise via the link the description.
This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.

100 thoughts on “Why did the Maya civilization collapse?

  1. Hey guys, please give some love to Cogito. In the last few months, he became an integral part of the team and his constant improvement makes our channel better.

  2. Thank you for giving my people some love man! I’m a Mexican American and the maya are our contribution to world history

  3. Why do you never do a series on an African civilization? They did and do exist. Seems you guys choose to neglect this part of the world. Almost seems like you go out of your to avoid. Ta Seti, Zulu, Asante, Kongo, just to name a few. It feels intellectually lazy or negligent not to do so.

  4. This is bullshit. The reasons proposed for the Mayan downfall are obviously formulated from modern problems. We live in a world with an irrational fear of war, growing deforestation in tropical areas, and supposed unhealthy farming practices. These weren’t the problems facing the Mayans. These are the problems that politically biased historians think were facing the Mayans.

  5. It would be awesome if HBO started a series like game of thrones except with Mayan mythology, and culture. There is so much to draw from, it'd be an instant hit if they got the right talent behind the project.

  6. If spanish idiots didnt kill aztecs, mayars and Incars, our tecnology in health would be more further compare to what we have today. The worlds most murders was English and Spanish. Murderes.

  7. .. their records were reduced to ash.. but by religious terrorists called christians that is important kind of

  8. Have you guys ever met a Mayan? They’re like 5”5 max height for males, imagine these people fighting and resisting 6+ feet tall Europeans for the past hundred years! And they’re the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

  9. Currently the maya face a bigger threat, corrupt government and private corporations forcing the, off their lands in order to make condos and resorts, the maya survived spanish conquest but modern day greed and corporate state? Please support the maya.

  10. Drought and environmental!!! Should of had a carbon trading scheme, recycled thier plastics and stop burning fossil fuels and and and oh wait……… Lucky they didnt have social media back then

  11. Were the Spanish aware that they were resistant to the outbreak that was killing the Natives? Because I would expect them fear it and hold back from marching deeper. Also were the Natives who sided with the Spanish also crippled by the disease? Because if it was already destroying cities and towns, then wouldn't it run through those armies much more swiftly?

  12. 11:21 The Republic of Texas assured the Mayans in their struggle of independence even sending the Texas Navy to link up with the Yucatán Navy and fight the Mexican Navy in the Battle of Campeche in 1843

    As a Texan, I'm proud of this forgotten chapter of Texas and Mayan history. Viva La Revoucionarios!

  13. I'll save everyone some time. When the Maya civilization reached its zenith, they were all driving big trucks, and SUV's. This is what we refer to in Europe as the medieval warming. Well, global warming in a hot part of the world isn't as nice as in a colder part, like northern Europe.

    Rise of the Vikings, curious coincident timing with the fall of the Maya.

    The full sized trucks, and SUV's of the Maya that caused this climate disaster quickly rusted away before the Mehicans showed up… and long before the lazy spanish gave everyone a nasty cold.

  14. Why didn't the Mayans call on Al Gore ? He could have shown them films on globull warming and shown them the way, the truth and the light. By the way, the Mongols were the most destructive force on human civilization not the Spanish.

  15. Mayan were cruel for people. They slaughtered them in bulk. They deserved for their fate. Although I regret that other cruel civilisation have not been punished the same.



  18. Maya's are kick ass warriors. They freaking survived till today. Similar to Indian Civilization even after facing full brunt of Turkish , Arab and Europeans Invaders.

  19. The Mayan and Aztec the destruction of their books were hanise by the Spanish if it were not for King Philip wanting to make the Americas as a Catholic procession if he had ordered that all writings were saved by both the Aztec and Mayan they would have been.

  20. I almost drives me mad thinking about how much the Catholic missionaries destroyed in the name of their sick, twisted ideology during that time. Thousands of years of knowledge, history and works of art and progress destroyed.
    It's beyond sickening.
    It's pure evil..

  21. This video I can really make sense to according to scriptural records .. there are other claims out there saying the mayans are Extraterrestrials.. is the same claim as they made on Egypt and the pyramids.. just because they don’t understand how people of colour in ancient days were able to do such wonders with their infer structures

  22. By burning forests for construction purposes theydamaged terrian around and it harmed agriculture and after that their empire was a colossus on clay legs.

  23. Funny how xtians whitewash their deeds.
    We didn't kill 90%, microorganisms did.
    We just gave them a comic book.

    LOLy Jesus

  24. I love these words..
    "They have been a part of human history for an incredibly long time. They have risen and fallen and risen and fallen a number of times. They have been invaded by foreign powers and dealt with apocalyptic disease yet they still have never truly been conquered as their culture and spirit has seemingly continued unbroken until this day."

  25. I find it interesting that so many native peoples were killed simply by exposure to things like the common cold and influenza by Europeans and Spaniards. I'm beginning to wonder if these viruses had origins in Europe, and weren't present anywhere else in the world, until colonization and migration began happening. Which sucks, could you imagine a world where you never catch a cold? Never have to suffer a week or two with bronchitis?

  26. White Europeans didn't leave a place on earth were they didn't try to subjugate the people and force them into there religion

  27. could it be that they failed to appease their so call gods and ended up sacraficing themselves and their whole civilization… of course natural disasters and war helped

  28. Don’t be fooled though. The Maya empire fell but it’s people continue to live along with their traditions. The Maya women continue to wear their clothes and their is a considerable Maya population in the USA but the government does not recognize them as natives and instead continue to put them in the Latino/Hispanic category. There are populations in LA, Riverside, Miami and any other large metropolitan in the US. Another interesting fact is that many continue to speak their language as well.

  29. Glad to see the continued resistance by the Itza until the late 1600s, as well as the Caste War and the Zapatistas were mentioned. It's often presented that the Mayans are just another defeated peoples but they have retained a remarkable resistance and level of autonomy. Even today in Mexico and Guatemala their customs and laws remain in some form in many communities. It's hard to go to the church in Chamula, Mexico, for instance, and think this is just another Catholic church, with its sun and moon painted on the ceiling, the lack of pews, and hard liquor instead of wine. Even after baptism many Mayans don't just assimilate but hold something of their past ways of life.

  30. Every piece of history I've read or heard about all give the same answer to me. The cult of the Jewish carpenter was one of the worst in the world,monotheism should have no important place in the modern world

  31. This video is full of misconceptions. For example, Chichen Itza was not ruled by a council instead of a king. Modern research has almost entirely disproved that hypothesis. Also, the shadow effect on the pyramid shows up for weeks around the equinox so the current theory says that it is just happenstance. I could go on…

  32. Mayan still fighting on. Make up large portions of southern mexico, half of guatemala and some in Salvador Honduras and Belize. Spain had trouble dominating guatemala, fought and gained Independence in 1815. But just like in US colonizing country still have influence over the nation and their descendents still hold power politically, culturally. But a more stable status quo has been reached after peace accords of 90s. Mayans have a different culture, economics, politics, just like indigenous people in other nations and this is problematic for the popular system whom seeks to spreads its control ceaselessly. All that to say, mayas have not gone anywhere and live on and will continue to defend their way of life against any attack.

  33. I seriously started tearing up there at the end. Great work you guys, and respect and well-wishes to all Mayans today.

  34. It seems that the Mayan motto is:
    "Do not go Gently into that long night,
    Rage Rage Rage against the dying of the Light"

  35. am i the only one that god a bit emotional at the end. what happened to them is so sad and knowing that even today they are still treated poorly for living traditionally seen as outcasts in modern society mexico just makes me even more sad. the mexican region really got screwed over as the years went by simply because they established a society in a place with resources. to think they can still stand tall is just like damn no wonder my relatives always have a fighting spirit in them including myself coming from mexican decent of a small village not written on most maps.

    im totally gonna thank my AP world civ teacher for giving me homework now this is actually reallly entertaining and fun to do

  36. Mayans fought hard. They were conquered, but their language and their genetics even survive. Other peoples just went with the Spaniards and there is no trace of those people.

  37. Wow loved your video, I am from Merida, it is very special to see the history of my region from an outside perspective.

  38. Of all the reasons I hate religion, the propensity for its faithful believers to destroy the historical artifacts of rival mythologies is a big one. Stupid Judaism tearing down pagan shrines, stupid Inquisition burning all the Mayan books, stupid Islamic doctrine that all Jahiliya (infidel thought) must be destroyed. I say Indiana Jones' battle cry: "This should be in a museum!"

  39. This alone should be proof that making love, not war is what helps you survive. When you allow war and hate you literally self destruct. There’s a King in Europe who refused to make war and I believe he wound up being the most successful King ever ruling and conquering 28 different nations at once because his children and grand children married into the lands he wished to conquer vs going to war with them.

  40. Having just returned from Yucatan, here are some interesting footnotes to consider: Firstly, it was Francisco de Montejo and his son that is largely considered the conqueror of the Yucatan peninsula- at least according to the locals. Secondly, recent research highly suggest that the drought was self imposed by major deforestation (it’s hard to see it now but Mayan’s cleared great swaths of land which may influenced the climate of that region- similar to what is happening in the Amazon today) and the contamination of their cenotes/aquifer. At least, this is what I learned when I visited.

  41. I did not know there where still 'actual'Mayans' around before i watched this documentry, that is quite a mind blowing fact.

  42. I hate the Spanish so much 🤬🤬🤬 I hope the MAYAN are planning their revenge. Death to the conquistadors!

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