A Cautionary Tale from the Maya

Why did the Maya civilizations of Central America disappear? They began scratching out an existence nearly 2,000 years B.C, reached their peak with a population of about 2 million people around the 6th century A.D., and 400 years later they were gone.

My wife and I just returned from Belize where we spent a week exploring historic sites and enjoying the wildlife. We stayed at an eco-lodge called DuPlooy’s Jungle Lodge a few miles outside the town of San Ignacio in the western highlands and we visited Maya sites at Tikal in Guatemala and at Xunantunich in Belize. We were astounded at the size of these cities and the complexity of their civilization. The Maya were extraordinary builders of stone structures and they excelled at agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. It was their ancient calendar that some people thought predicted the end of the world in December 2012. Thankfully, they got that one wrong. But how could a civilization that advanced simply abandon these impressive sites and vanish into the jungle?

Maya City of Tikal
Maya City of Tikal

The Maya Disappear

During our visit, we had two licensed, trained guides who were experts on the Maya cities and civilization. At Tikal, it was a young professional named Christian. At Xunantunich it was an older man named Philip who was of Maya descent. They both agreed that by about 900 A.D., the Maya had cut all of the trees and exhausted the environment around their cities to the point that they could no longer sustain a very large population.

Other Maya scholars suggest that constant warfare among competing city-states led to the breakdown.  As the stature of their leadership diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos.

A third theory suggests that some catastrophic environmental change – like an extremely long, intense period of drought – may have wiped them out. Drought would have hit big cities like Tikal, where rainwater was necessary for drinking and for crop irrigation, especially hard.

Maya City of Xunantunich
Maya City of Xunantunich

A Cautionary Tale for Today

Perhaps it was some combination of all three of these – overuse of the land, constant warfare, and a serious drought – that played a part in the downfall of the Maya. By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in small, agricultural villages, their great stone cities buried under layers of topsoil and tropical vegetation.

I came away from my experience at these Maya sites with the sense that I was hearing a cautionary tale from a thousand years ago. Environmental degradation, catastrophic climate change, and constant warfare might have been ripped from the headlines of today. The only difference is that the Maya probably never saw disaster looming. I can’t say the same for us. We have been warned – but we refuse to act.

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