Ancient Civilizations 101: The Rise and Fall of Mayans


We cannot be sure of how human mentality led to the development of civilizations. Until today, this remains a popular topic among historians and anthropologists, and it is a significant scholarly debate. This 101 series brings to the spotlight some of the oldest civilizations that have ever existed. Undoubtedly, modern-day culture and society owe a lot to the previous ones. Each civilization, discussed in this 101 series, contributed in many ways to: new inventions, new ideas, new cultures, new philosophies, and lifestyles. In this article, the author will examine the civilization of ancient Rome; Rome, a city built on the lowest point of the Tiber River, gradually expanded as the power of its inhabitants grew. The monarchy of the early years gave way to democracy, which was later replaced by the imperial power of Augustus. At this time, the city acquired the first outstanding monuments, while at the same time some remarkable technical structures were built, such as aqueducts, sewers, and public toilets.

Ancient Civilizations 101 So Far Is Divided Into 5 Chapters

  1. The Rise and Fall of Mayans

  2. The Mycenaeans

  3. The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt I

  4. The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt II

  5. The Roman Empire from Caesar to Augustus I

The Maya Empire was centered in the tropical lowlands of what is known today as Guatemala. The Maya lived in three separate sub-areas with distinctive environmental and cultural differences. There were the northern Maya lowlands on the Yucatan Peninsula. The southern lowlands in the Peten district of northern Guatemala and the southern Maya highlands, in the region of southern Guatemala. The Maya civilization consisted of numerous small "cities-states", ruled by kings or the “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords). It was common for a stronger Maya state to dominate a weaker one and be able to claim tax and workers from it. The civilization reached the peak of its power around the sixth century A.D. (from 250 to 900 A.D.) This period is known as the "Classic period of Maya Civilization". The great stone cities, which come from that period, still fascinate the explorers and the scholars. The Maya were pioneers in the scientific field. They are mostly known for their calendar system. However, they did not miss to left behind a great amount of architecture, pottery, and other symbolic artworks. Most of the great cities-states of Maya were abandoned by 900 A.D. The decline of Maya was the start of an interesting debate among the scholars of the 19th-century, around the factors that caused Mayas' collapse. Even today, they cannot be sure about what really happened.

 Shutterstock. (2021). Why did the Maya Civilization Collapse? [Photograph].
Shutterstock. (2021). Why did the Maya Civilization Collapse? [Photograph].

The extinction of the Maya was one of the all-time favorite subjects of historians. Although they claim that Maya's culture did not "collapse", there is a mystery around them. During the years, many theories have been developed, in an attempt to solve that mystery, from epidemics to extraterrestrial beings. However, the prevailing one focuses on climate change, which has caused two hundred years of drought.

Climate change is not a modern phenomenon. The climatic conditions that prevail on our planet have changed many times over the centuries. Those changes have a major impact not only on biodiversity but also on human civilizations. The relationship between climate changes and human behavior is a crucial point during archaeological research. Legitimately, if someone considers that the climate is responsible for the landscape's shaping, the development of biocommunities and organizations, and therefore is directly linked with the evolution of any form of culture. However, it is not the first time that climate change is threatening the planet. Civilizations that in antiquity were considered unstoppable, they tried to deal with climate change and failed. Many scientists claim that the climate consequences, in some cases, were so catastrophic that entire tribes perished.

From the Preclassic Maya to the Golden age of the Empire.

The earliest Maya settlements date to around 1800 B.C. . This period is known as the Preclassic or Formative Period and lasted until 250 A.D. The earliest Mayans were very connected with the land, as an agricultural civilization. Some of the most common agricultural products were corns, beans, and cassava. Around 300 B.C, the Maya farmers expand their presence both in highland and in lowland regions. That move was the start of the Middle Preclassic Period and the rise of the first great Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs. The Maya was a very religious civilization. Already from this period, we began to have traces of their religious activity and from some other cultural traits; like pyramid-building, city construction, and the inscribing of stone monuments. They worshiped various gods related to nature, including the gods of the sun, the moon, rain, and corn. Other important investments of the period were the number system and the Olmec calendar system.

Moving forward to the Classic Period, which began around 250 A.D. There is a golden age of the Maya civilization. This period is characterized by population growth. There are 40 cities with around 5.000 to 50.000 people each. As researchers claim, the Maya population, at its peak may have reached from 2.000.000 to 10.000.000 people. Some of the greatest cities of the period were the Tikal, the Bonampak, the Copán. The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate engravings. Thanks to these architectural relics, Mayans have earned their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy. Consequently, they invented the Calendar Round system, based on 365 days, and later, the Long Count Calendar system, designed to last over 5,000 years.

(2021). Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization Over 3,000 Years. [Photograph]. History on the Net.
Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization Over 3,000 Years. (2021). [Photograph]. History on the Net.

One of the most interesting things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient civilizations had thrived in drier climates where the centralized management of water resources set the basis of society. In contrast, in the southern Maya lands, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport while there was no obvious need for a flooding system. By the late 20th century, researchers had concluded that the climate of the Maya lands had been quite environmentally diverse. Foreign attackers were frustrated by the region’s lack of silver and gold, however, the Maya took advantage of the area’s many natural resources like limestone, volcanic rock obsidian, and salt. Τhe abundance of goods provided by the land does not stop here. The environment also held other treasures for the Maya, including jade, quetzal feathers, and marine shells, which were used as cornets in rituals and battles.

However, every acne seems to have its end. From the late 8th through the end of the 9th century A.D., something unknown happened to the Maya civilization. One by one, the classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, the Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. Some believe that by the 9th century A.D., the Maya had exhausted the environmental resources around them at that point that it could no longer support the population. Some of the other scientists argue that the regular warfare among competing cities led to the confusion of the military, family, and trade connections among them. As the growth of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies ended in chaos. And finally, the most influential factor seems to be a catastrophic environmental change; an extremely long, intense period of drought. The drought would have hit cities like Tikal, where rainwater was required to fulfill the drinking and watering needs of the population. According to a study by the American University of Cincinnati, published in December 2014, in the prestigious review "Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS)", the drought has virtually canceled the advanced Mayas' practices in land management. The authors of the study, led by David Lentz, concluded that the construction of extensive sidewalks combined with deforestation exacerbated the problem of drought. This situation had, as a result, the lack of water and food stocks in the late mid-9th century A.D. The reduced adaptability of the system to the new conditions leads to the downfall of the city.

References: Editors. (2021, October 2). Maya.

Owen, J. (2017, August 23). The Maya: History, Culture and Religion. LiveScience.

Owen, J. (2021, September 10). Why did the Maya Civilization Collapse?. LiveScience.

Παπαδημητρίου, Στ. ( 2020, Octomber 10). 3 αρχαίοι πολιτισμοί που χάθηκαν εξαιτίας της κλιματικής αλλαγής. Portraits.

Ταχυδρόμος. (2015, January 12). Αρχαίοι Πολιτισμοί και κλιματική αλλαγη.

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Anna-Aikaterini Bati

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