2. Once a city, now it’s a jungle
In less than years, the civilisation had slumped to a fraction of its former glory. Apart from its dramatic scale, what makes the Maya collapse so striking is that, despite decades of study, archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused it. But the nature of their decline leads some researchers to believe that the Maya civilisation fell victim to a major catastrophe — one able to topple city after city in its wake.
View image of Archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused the Maya collapse. There are abundant theories about what finished off the Maya. There are the old favourites — invasion, civil war, collapsing trade routes — but ever since the first Central American ancient climate records were pieced together in the early s, one theory has become particularly popular: Cities flourished and harvests were good.
Climate records which mostly come from the analysis of cave formations show that during this time the Maya area had received relatively high rainfall. But the same records show that, starting in about AD, the region was ravaged by 95 years of punctuated droughts, some of which lasted for decades. Most of the Classic Maya cities fell between AD and — largely coincident with a century of drought.
Ever since these droughts were first identified, researchers have noticed a striking correlation between their timing and that of the Maya collapse: But attractive as the drought explanation is, one piece of evidence has been standing in its way. Because, while most Maya cities declined as the climate dried, not all did. The Maya cities which fell during the 9th Century droughts were mostly located in the southern portion of their territory, in modern day Guatemala and Belize. In the Yucatan peninsula to the north, however, the Maya civilisation not only survived through these droughts, it then began to flourish.
While the southern Maya civilisation began to disintegrate, the north enjoyed relative prosperity, with the rise of a number of thriving urban centres.
Researchers have proposed various explanations for this north-south discrepancy, but so far no one theory has won out. Recently, however, a new discovery has gone some way towards resolving this enduring paradox. View image of Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan cities Credit: Maya archaeologists find dating difficult. Earlier studies had already determined the approximate ages of the main urban centres in the northern Maya civilisation; it was these that had revealed that the north had endured the 9th Century droughts. However until recently this haul of data had never been gathered together in a single study.
Doing so is important, because it allows the northern Maya region to be viewed as a whole, helping researchers to identify overarching trends in its rise and fall. Now, in a study published in December , archaeologists from the US and the UK have brought together for the first time all of the calculated ages for urban centres in the northern Maya lands.
These comprise about dates from sites across the Yucatan peninsula, half obtained from stone calendar inscriptions and half from radiocarbon dating. The researchers could then construct a broad picture of what times the northern Maya cities had been active, and the times when they each might have fallen into decline. What the team found significantly changes our understanding of when, and perhaps even how the Maya civilisation met its end.
Contrary to previous belief, the north had suffered a decline during a time of drought - in fact, it had suffered two of them.
Mystery of the Mayans! - Chichen Itza
View image of Calendar inscriptions declined in times of drought Credit: This same pattern of decline is also echoed in radiocarbon dates across the northern Maya region, which indicate that wooden construction also dwindled during the same time period. The north certainly fared better than the south, but the region nevertheless suffered a significant decline. The researchers believe that this waning of creative activity shows that political and societal collapse was underway in the north. The north certainly fared better than the south during the 9th Century, but these new findings suggest that the region nevertheless suffered a significant decline.
This northern decline had previously escaped detection mostly due to the subtle nature of the evidence: After a short recovery during the 10th Century which, interestingly, was coincident with an increase in rainfall , the researchers noticed another slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern Maya territory: And not just any drought.
The ones in the 9th Century had certainly been severe. View image of Severe drought affected the Maya Credit: After a short recovery there was another slump in construction in the north — against a backdrop of severe drought. Climate records show that rainfall diminished dramatically for the best part of a century, between around AD and - a snug fit with the archaeologically derived dates for the collapse of the northern Maya. The 11th Century megadrought had been implicated in the fall of the northern Maya before, but the dating techniques used had given ambiguous ages, making it hard to tell if the timings of the two events really did overlap.
The comprehensive analysis published in the December study lets us say with much greater certainty that climate change was contemporaneous with not one, but two devastating periods of Maya decline.
Chichen Itza – Mysterious Places
If the first wave of droughts had finished off the Maya in the south, it looks like the second wave may have brought on their demise in the north. After this second wave of droughts there was to be no real recovery for the Maya. Without metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety.
The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatan around B. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools.
They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centers.
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It started to decline around A. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A. Climbing it is quite a challenge and those who make it are rewarded with a spectacular view of the city and surrounding country side. A trip inside the pyramid is quite the opposite. The dark, unbearably humid corridors and chambers are too much for some people. I had the opportunity to wander around the site for two hours before the gates were opened one day.
Watching the massive pyramid take shape through the lifting fog is an experience I will not soon forget. Every year over 40, people make the trek to the great pyramid to watch in awe as the snakes diamond backed body slowly appears. If you stand facing the foot of the temple and shout the echo comes back as a piercing shriek. Also, a person standing on the top step can speak in a normal voice and be heard by those at ground level for some distance.
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This quality is also shared by another Mayan pyramid at Tikal. The Temple of the Warriors and its adjacent Temple of the Jaguar are the most awe inspiring ruins on the complex. A massive temple structure, surrounded by hundreds of columns is carved with reliefs. Still early morning, I wandered into the rows of columns with the sun just breaking through. The columns continue on into the jungle, that part of the temple still has not been restored.
What unanswered questions lay under the canopy of leaves and beneath the twisted roots. South of the Castillo is a strange round building known as the Carocal. Several of its windows point towards the equinox sunset and the southernmost and northernmost points on the horizon where Venus rises. Many have the musty smell of the past, still present after over years. Dark portals await those that dare walk through. After walking into one pitch black room a startled meter long iguana charged through my shaking legs and out into the jungle. They appear to be the living quarters of the elite Mayans.
Every square foot of wall has reliefs and paintings decorating it. Like most of the other ruins, entry is allowed so I explore some of the hidden recesses.