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
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