Say, whatever happpened to those Maya anyway?

Probably the most frequently asked question about the ancient Maya is: "Why did that great civilization collapse?" According to the latest literature, academics no longer condone the use of the term "collapse". We now speak of a period of "realignment" or "restructuring". It seems that "collapse" is now politically incorrect. God, I love academia.

Call it what you will, the evidence points to a serious shift in Maya life around 900 A.D. The great cities and ceremonial centers were abandoned and the jungle quickly overgrew the formidable structures and the roadways that connected them. Maya life, based on the centuries-old tradition of rule by an elite class came to a rather abrupt and inglorious end. Gone forever were the kings and priests and the elaborate ceremonies and rituals that had been the mainstay of Maya life for hundreds of years.

In seeking the cause for the rapid (probably less than fifty years) decline of the Maya world, scholars have considered numerous possibilities:

1. The Maya were abducted by aliens in UFO's. (Actually this explanation's more popular with the National Inquirer crowd and is generally given short shrift by the academics.)

2. The Maya were wiped out by a huge hurricane or some other natural disaster. With Maya numbering in the millions all over Central America- Well, I don't think so.

3. Everybody died of disease or warfare. No archeological evidence to support either of these theories.

4. There was some sort of peasant revolt or revolution against the ruling class that caused the system to break down. This explanation has a lot of appeal to our twentieth century mind-set because recent history is full of revolutions, but a thousand years ago any notion of individual rights and freedoms usually died with the person that thought them up. Remember Spartacus?

Well, if none of the conventional explanations fills the bill, what does the archeological evidence have to say about the relatively sudden demise of the most advanced civilization in the New World?

First of all it is important to note that no totally satisfactory explanation for the Maya collapse- OOPS! (make that restructuring) exists. No one absolutely knows for sure what happened, but it's fair to say that there is a growing consensus among archeologists that the root cause was something we all see from day to day and never expect it to catch up with us.

Let's set the stage in the Maya world around 900 A.D. Firstly, the population was enormous by today's standards. Ambergris Caye must have had between ten and twenty thousand residents. The island, in fact, is one large archeological site. Belize probably supported around two million people if current estimates are anywhere near correct. Given the amount of arable land and the relatively inefficient slash and burn agricultural methods employed by the Maya, just feeding everybody must have been a monumental effort. Since there were no draft animals available to the Maya, plowing and row-crop dry farming was out of the question. Hence the reliance on slash and burn, wherein the jungle was cut down and burned, returning important nutrients to the soil which would then support the growth of corn, beans, squash, etc., for two or three crops after which the soil would be exhausted and the farmer would be forced to move on to a new jungle plot while allowing the previous plot to return to secondary growth. After a few years the original plot could be re-burned, but by that time there were more children- more mouths to feed. With unrestricted population growth and a finite supply of land for farming purposes with inefficient farming methods, it's easy to see how a human population could slowly slip behind the curve- and face the inevitable disaster.

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