Find out What Happened to the Ancient Maya Empire

Chichen Itza
Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The End of the Maya Empire:

In 800 A.D., the Maya Empire consisted of a number of powerful city-states spreading from southern Mexico to northern Honduras. These cities were home to vast populations and were ruled by a dominant elite who could command mighty armies and claimed to be descended from the stars and planets themselves. Maya culture was at its peak: mighty temples were lined up in precision with the night sky, stone carvings were made to celebrate the accomplishments of great leaders and long-distance trade was flourishing. Yet a hundred years later, the cities were in ruins, abandoned and left to the jungle to reclaim. What happened to the Maya?

Classic Maya Culture:

The Classic Era Maya civilization was quite advanced. Powerful city-states vied for supremacy, militarily and culturally. Close ties with the grand city of Teoithuacán, far to the north, helped Maya civilization reach its peak around 600-800 A.D. The Maya were keen astronomers, plotting every aspect of the sky and accurately predicting eclipses and other phenomena. They had a series of overlapping calendars which were quite accurate. They had a well-developed religion and divine pantheon, some of which is described in the Popol Vuh. In the cities, stonemasons created stelae, statues which recorded the greatness of their leaders. Trade, particularly for prestige items like obsidian and jade, flourished. The Maya were well on their way to becoming a powerful empire when suddenly the civilization collapsed and the mighty cities were abandoned.

The Collapse of Maya Civilization:

The fall of the Maya is one of history’s great mysteries. One of the mightiest civilizations in the ancient Americas simply fell into ruin in a very short time. Mighty cities like Tikal were abandoned and Maya stonemasons stopped making temples and stelae. The dates are not in doubt: deciphered glyphs at several sites indicate a thriving culture in the ninth century A.D., but the record goes eerily silent after the last recorded date on a Maya stela, 904 A.D. There are many theories as to what happened to the Maya, but little consensus among experts.

The Disaster Theory:

Early Maya researchers believed that some catastrophic event may have doomed the Maya. An earthquake, volcanic eruption or sudden epidemic disease could have destroyed cities and killed or displaced tens of thousands of people, bringing the Maya civilization crashing down. These theories have been discarded today, however, largely because of the fact that the decline of the Maya took about 200 years: some cities fell while others thrived, at least for a while longer. An earthquake, disease or other widespread calamity would have snuffed out the great Maya cities more or less simultaneously.

The Warfare Theory:

The Maya were once thought to have been a peaceful, pacific culture. This image has been shattered by the historical record: new discoveries and newly deciphered stonecarvings clearly indicate that the Maya warred frequently and viciously among themselves. City-states such as Dos Pilas, Tikal, Copán and Quirigua went to war with one another quite often: Dos Pilas was invaded and destroyed in 760 A.D. Did they war with one another enough to cause the collapse of their civilization? It’s quite possible: war brings with it economic disaster as well as collateral damage that could have caused a domino effect in the Maya cities.

The Famine Theory:

Preclassic Maya (1000 B.C. - 300 A.D.) practiced basic subsistence agriculture: slash-and-burn cultivation on small family plots. They planted mostly corn, beans and squash. On the coast and lakes, there was some basic fishing as well. As the Maya civilization advanced, the cities grew, their population growing much larger than could be fed by local production. Improved agricultural techniques such as draining wetlands for planting or terracing hills picked up some of the slack, and improved trade also helped, but the large population in the cities must have put great strain on the food production. A famine or other agricultural calamity affecting these basic crops could certainly have caused the downfall of the ancient Maya.

Civil Strife Theory:

As the populations in the large cities boomed, great strain was placed on the working class to produce food, build temples, clear rainforest, mine obsidian and jade and do other labor intensive tasks. At the same time, food, was becoming more and more scarce. The idea that a hungry, overworked working class might overthrow the ruling elite is not too farfetched, especially if warfare between city-states was as endemic as researchers believe.

Environmental Change Theory:

Climate change may also have done in the ancient Maya. As the Maya were dependent on the most basic agriculture and a handful of crops, supplemented by hunting and fishing, they were extremely vulnerable to droughts, floods, or any change in the conditions that affected their food supply. Some researchers have identified some climatic change that occurred around that time: for example, the coastal water levels rose towards the end of the Classic period. As coastal villages flooded, people would have moved to the large inland cities, placing strain upon their resources while at the same time losing food from farms and fishing.

So…What Happened to the Ancient Maya?:

Experts in the field simply do not have enough solid information to state with clear-cut certainty how the Maya civilization ended. The downfall of the ancient Maya was likely caused by some combination of the factors above. The question seems to be which factors were most important and if they were linked somehow. For example, did a famine lead to starvation, which in turn led to civil strife and warring upon neighbors?

That doesn't mean that they've giving up trying to find out. Archaeological digs are ongoing at many sites and new technology is being used to re-examine already excavated sites. For example, recent research, using chemical analysis of soil samples, indicates that a certain area at the Chunchucmil archaeological site in Yucatan was used for a food market, as had been long suspected. Mayan glyphs, long a mystery to researchers, have mostly been deciphered.


McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

National Geographic Online: The Maya: Glory and Ruin 2007