Triumph and Tragedy During the Mayan Classic Period

Mayan City of Tikal and surrounding rainforest in Guatemala

Driving northeast from the city of Flores in Guatemala it is hard to believe that dense and seemingly uninhabited rainforest once supported a largely agricultural landscape and innumerable human habitations. It is harder yet to imagine that some 1200 years ago the ruins of Tikal, empty and isolated today in the midst of a deep green forest, was once a thriving city of some 300,000 to 500,000 Mayans. In its day it rivaled in size and splendor the contemporary cities of Europe.  I traveled here as part of my Guggenheim research in early 2009.

When Hernán Cortés first arrived on the shores of Lake Flores in 1540 he found a small Mayan Kingdom situated there. In fact, it was here in Guatemala that the last independent Mayan state made its stand against the Spanish in 1697 before at last being absorbed by the Hispanic kingdom of the New World. However, the Maya the Spanish encountered at Flores were not directly from Tikal, but were Itzan refugees from the Maya-Toltec cities of the southern Yucatan Peninsula. They had arrived at Flores only some three centuries earlier themselves. When the Spanish arrived at Flores the great city of Tikal had already lain abandoned for hundreds of years and was likely all but subsumed under a blanket to uninhabited rainforest that extended for hundreds of square kilometers around it. The history of the Maya and their great Classical urban centers, such as Tikal, which flourished from 250 A.D. to 800 A.D. or their later impressive Postclassical cities of the Yucatan remain one of the great objects of interest to archaeologists and climate change scientists alike.

Mayan City of Tikal

Between 400 B.C. and 250 A.D. the Pre-Classic Mayan civilization arose in Southern Mexico and nearby parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Large stone buildings took form in the center of emerging cities. During the Classic Period between 250 and 800 A.D. the Maya used thousands of stone blocks, usually cut from soft limestone and often covered with plaster and various decorative elements, to create huge city centers with expansive plazas, pyramidal temples and other ceremonial structures, palaces and large ball courts. As the Mayan cities grew in importance the monumental architecture of temples, palaces and administrative complexes reached considerable proportions. For example, the urban core and residential areas of Tikal likely covered some 60 square kilometers and included pyramids that exceed 50 m in height. There was also a large central acropolis that covered some 8000 square meters and many other great and impressive structures.  There is evidence of some trade linkages with the great empire of the Valley of Mexico to the north – Teotihuacan -. The Maya also developed a written language, recording events in glyphs written in codices and carved on stone steles placed in city centers. The monumental architecture at Tikal and other Classical Mayan sites is massive, angular and exceptionally well proportioned – giving it a very contemporary or even futuristic air. For example, Tikal served as the background ruins used as a rebel base in the Star Wars movie.

Although the area of Guatemala where Tikal is found, and the other Mayan southern lowlands sites that supported the great cities of the Classic Period are relatively moist, the region can experience prolonged droughts. In fact according to UN reports during 2009 the country is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years with some 2.5 million Guatemalans being affected. Hundreds of thousands are facing severe hunger. Then, as now. It is likely that drought was a potential deadly menace.  The urban infrastructure at Tikal includes extensive canal systems and surface water reservoirs – some of which hold water to this day. The Maya here appear to have depended upon the capture of surface water to hold them through dry periods.

Mayan reservoir at Tikal

The Classic Maya period and the great southern cities appear to have ended in a catastrophic manner. There is evidence of warfare, burning and hasty construction of defensive walls in some city centers. In some cases there is evidence of the massacre of the rulers. Unfortunately, the written history of the Maya provide no insight into what happened. By the end of the classic period the Maya had ceased to erect stone stele with inscriptions. Most of the codices found by the Spanish were destroyed by people such as Bishop Diego de Landa in the 1500 and 1600’s because he thought them satanic. Only four survive today. This must surely be one of the greatest travesties to have occurred in recent times in terms of destroying the history of an entire people.

Studies of past climate and environmental change, often based on sediment records from lakes or the ocean, suggest that the close of the Classic

Mayan pyramid at Tikal

Mayan period coincided with a period of extended drought in Central America and portions of northeastern South America. There is also evidence of pronounced soil erosion at this time. Could drought have caused the collapse of the Classic Mayan cities in the southern lowlands, or was it simply one component that included societal breakdown due to over population, soil depletion, inter-urban warfare, and an unsustainable social structure with a lavish lifestyle for the rulers and priests and brutal conditions for most others? Finally, the collapse of the Classical Mayan civilization appears to coincide with the collapse of the great empire Teotihuacan to the north. Perhaps the severing of trade and military-political linkages may have played a role in the decline of the Classical Maya. It is hard to point to any one of these factor after 1200 years. It is also hard to decipher why at no time after 800 A.D. did the Mayan people reoccupy the former fields or city centers at places like Tikal? What kept them away for over a thousand years and allowed the rainforest to reclaim the fields, buildings and silent plazas of the once great cities?

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