The Classic Maya Collapse: an interpretation from modernity

Model of the classic Maya city of Uaxactún (National Museum of Anthropology, Guatemala)

What new perspective for the collapse of the Maya civilization can be drawn from observing the modern world? And, notwithstanding how little is known about it, what can the Maya collapse teach us about the path the world is following today?

The reason for the Maya classic civilization collapse is still an unresolved question for archaeologists, anthropologists and historians, with many competing theories created throughout more than a century of study. Among those theories: foreign invasions from Central Mexico, prolonged drought, destruction of the environment, and disease outbreaks. However, no single theory for the decline has proven definitive, and it is now generally proposed that a combination of several factors contributed to such cataclysmic cultural downfall.

Still, the present state of the world suggests that a factor not fully considered previously, may in fact be the overarching reason for the decline. Thanks to the classic Maya's obsession with recording events, it is well known that the collapse of the classic Maya happened very quickly, in the course of barely 50 years. Furthermore, the abandonment of cities spread throughout the entire area, from the southern lowlands (Petén, Guatemala and Southeastern Mexico) to the easternmost fringes in Copán, Honduras.

One after the other, cities were deserted, as if some sort of curse befell them. While lack of rain and ecological destruction are in evidence in some areas, they do not explain the generalized abandonment of large population centers. In fact, the collapse propagated quite similarly to a plague, causing a domino effect, wherein city after city was deserted, to be reclaimed by the jungle. Eerily, their inhabitants often left behind work abruptly suspended: unfinished monuments, incomplete books, and partial buildings, in an attempt to perhaps save themselves. And yet, there is no evidence, as of this time, of any major or highly communicable disease causing such level of depopulation at that time.

However, a new potential factor is emerging from the present state of turmoil around the world, one not related to pathogens, but propagating in much the same fashion: political turmoil. More specifically, the loss of faith of the general population in their system of governance, a distrust of the rules by which all are supposed to abide, a complete breakdown in citizen's capacity to agree on common objectives, and adopt a shared stand against the wrath of nature and man.

External causes such as drought, environmental destruction and wars are only some of the stressors that put a civilization to the test. It is well known, however, that rather than destroying a community, these stressors often result in a more cohesive society, united by a common struggle. So that, by themselves, they are not sufficient conditions for the collapse of a civilization. However, disdain and wariness of the establishment, propagating like a tear in the fabric of society, causes it to erode and eventually disintegrate.

In classic Maya society, the ruler of each city-state was everything to its population: the center of government, of religion, and a mediator with the gods. The importance of the ruler is evidenced by the monumental sculptures and buildings of the classical period (200 - 850 AD), typically dedicated to one person and his immediate ancestors. The rulers were given tribute from near and afar, depending on their sphere of influence. In return, the population consisting of scribes, artisans, builders, and farmers provided the ruler with the product of their effort, with the expectation and confidence that their ruler-priest would intercede on their behalf with the deities.

Relief sculpture of a classic Maya ruler

There were several ways in which the ruler-priests interceded with the gods: through self-sacrifice, in which they let their own blood, gathering it in corn husks and burning it, so that its smoke reached high, into the domains of the gods. There were also prolonged periods of fasting, with intense study of the sacred books. In their subject's minds, rulers were both intermediaries and translators of the will of the gods. It is conceivable that even in hard times, when rain was scarce and the crops meager, the citizens of a Maya city would still stick with their ruler, as long as he/she continued to truthfully fulfill his/her sacred duties of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

But, what happens when those citizens begin to doubt in their ruler's abilities and intentions? When, blinded by poor judgment, rulers begin to backtrack from daily obligations and take for granted the contributions from their subjects? Rumors begin to spread. From the high pyramidal temples to the humble huts among the corn fields, it is rumored that the ruler did not really let his own blood to reach to the gods; instead, it is said, it was the blood of a tapir that he smeared beneath his ears and under his groins. It is also being rumored that, in spite of the affected face he shows in public ceremonies, the divine ruler keeps inviting more friends and relatives to his palace, quickly consuming the food that the peasants provide only with much sacrifice, especially during dry spells.

At some point, the population realizes that whether the gods will be benevolent or revengeful must have nothing to do with their ruler or the political system he represents, since the ruler himself is constantly implicated with neglecting his prime duties. Again, it is not hardships that make the society turn against its rulers. Instead, it is the distrust that such rulers generate by their actions and attitudes.

Just as in current times there is a widespread sense that governmental corruption, selfishness and ineptitude are ubiquitous around the world, inducing a chain reaction of distrust and civil unrest from one country to the next, it is quite plausible that the Maya citizen, demoralized from being deceived and taken advantage of, decided that the political system based on a single person, the divine ruler, was not worth maintaining. As we can see in modern times, it is enough for one location to rise against their ruler, for their neighbors to follow suit.

Maya societies were very centralized, suggesting that the spreading of distrust for the ruling class would necessarily end the notion of a single divine ruler. Supporting this idea, the cities that followed the classic Maya, such as post-classic Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula, discontinued completely the cult to a single lord, so prevalent in the great Maya cities of Tikal, Copán or Palenque. No more would there be sculptures of individual rulers or their divine ancestors. Instead, the new monumental work would emphasize entire groups or clans: merchants, ball-game players and warriors, in a society that became much more decentralized. The Maya writing system, a tool for recording the lineage of classic Maya kings, was substituted by murals of images which everybody, not just the elite, could see and understand.

How does this idea translate in turn to modern times? Simply put, the greatest risk to the breakdown of modern civilization is the complete loss of faith in its social structure and its leaders. At present time, because of globalization brought about by technological advancements in communications, this can occur not only at the level of individual countries but, more significantly, at the scale of the entire world. Technology has coupled regions of the world into one global entity, struggling with large-scale challenges: climate change, environmental destruction, war, extremism, drought and famine, all of which become amplified by the lack of consensus and outright distrust for what the various sides are proposing.

In the case of the classic Maya, this situation led to their society partitioning into multiple groups, each literally going its own separate way, to form new settlements far away, under entirely different rules. In the modern world, this corresponds to countries and regions breaking up into multiple, disjoint political islands, where each one pursues its own beliefs of how problems should be solved. A collapse of society at the global scale, wherein small clusters of the human species do not trust each other to repair a system that no longer works.

What remains of the classic Maya metropolis of Copán, Western Honduras

© Efraín Figueroa Lemus, 2017

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