You may be surprised to learn that with all the recent discoveries being made concerning the Maya, that there in fact was no Maya empire. Throughout the Classic Period (defined as the timeframe when the Maya achieved their peak zenith 250CE-900CE), the cities of the Maya lands were apparently independent city-states.
Scholars compare the Maya cities to the city-states of ancient Greece: all spoke a common language, religion and group of common assumptions, but all were strongly independent and often at a constant state of war with each other, but no one central state enforced rule over the others.
To judge from surviving glyphs in pyramids, temples and Maya pottery, the dynastic ruler of a Maya state gained great prestige if he could capture a rival king, hold him captive, inflict punishing torture upon him and finally decapitate him. Wars seem to have taken place more for ceremonial purposes than for capturing and holding land. Indeed, the boundaries between the Maya city-states remained largely unchanged over the many years that were marked by great bloodshed. It is assumed that instead more powerful city-states held the weaker ones in a tribute paying relationship instead of confiscating their lands.
In the 9th century CE, the cities in the Maya Southern Lowlands began to be abandoned. The jungle vegetation that the Maya farmers had tamed grew back, and in time even engulfed the great temples and plazas that had once been decorated with vibrant ancient Mayan art where priests and kings had celebrated royal power.
But contrary to popular belief not, all the Maya cities’ were abandoned. To the north towards the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, Maya cities such as Mayapan, Uxmal, Labna and Chichen Itza continued to thrive, making the decline of the Mayan lowland cities all the more puzzling. Within four to five generations, the great civilization of the Lowland Maya faded. This event has been called “the great Maya collapse” by archaeologists and historians.
Why would a determined and resourceful people abandon their great constructions of stone which had been laboriously erected in honor of their rulers, ancestors and gods? After 900 CE no more Maya stelae that marked the dynastic achievements and history of the proud Maya of the Lowlands were carved or erected. These marvelous monuments of pre Columbian art were seen no more.
One of the current theories states that the Lowlands Maya basically wiped one another out. Centuries of continous fighting between the city-states greatly depleted the population. In time, the combination of falling population from warfare and inadequate food from constant battles contributed to the condition where the cities could not be maintained and so were abandoned. In effect the jungle soil would no longer produce the food necessary to support a continuous state of war.
Disease may have also contributed to the acceleration of the collapse. Maya pottery from surviving cities depicts diseases in greater numbers being present. As the population began to fall, fear of hunger and future shortages fuelled ever-more fierce exchanges for the dwindling resources available. The end was apparent; people chose to flee for safety and away from cities that offered no safety.
A true calamity took place, the mighty Maya; timekeepers of the universe, together with their centers of learning were no more. Their incredible achievements in astronomy, mathematics, Maya pottery and other pre columbian art as well as monumental constructions in stone were erased. All was claimed by the jungle and forgotten. Even their writing was forgotten. Until very recent, the glyphs in stone and four surviving Maya manuscripts were considered undecipherable.
It is only recentlyy with some breakthroughs that we are starting to decipher what words were written and truly comprehend the splendor of their achievements, and their great fall.
View Mayan pottery