What Happened to the Mayans?

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:49:53 PM ET
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Thanks to recent scientific improvements, we are beginning to learn more about the ancient Mayan civilization. Advanced imaging technology, equipment and techniques are now being used by researchers to pull the layers of jungle canopy back and reveal a sprawling Mayan society, one that contained over 60,000 surviving structures.

These new research methods have unearthed clues as to what happened to the Mayans. Get ready to learn about one of the oldest and most intriguing peoples alive today.

Who Were the Mayans?

The ancient Mayans were an advanced people, more so than early research on them first suggested. It‘s estimated that the Mayan population ranged from seven to 11 million people at its peak. We don't know exactly what led to their downfall, but there are several theories.

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It’s often presume that the Spanish wiped them out. However, by the time Europeans arrived, Mayan society had already collapsed to the point that it was largely unable to defend itself. New research is beginning to determine what led the society to the brink of collapse by the time Europeans arrived.

What Was Once a City Is Now a Jungle

Serious research by Western archaeologists into Mayan society began in the mid-1800s. In recent years, tens of thousands of Mayan structures have been discovered. Roads, canals, and societal infrastructure have been unearthed, providing new clues on the Mayan way of life.

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This has been thanks to the new technologies that virtually pull back the jungle to reveal what lies beneath. The jungle had been hiding the secrets of Mayan history, but new technologies have changed all that.


Researchers Used to Have to Walk Through the Jungle

Before these new technologies were available, researchers had to physically walk through the jungle to discover new Mayan ruins. Aerial images could show archaeologists where ancient ruins were visible through the thick canopy, but all other research had to take place on the ground, in the thick of the jungle.

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Just two percent of sunlight makes its way to the ground in the jungle, with vegetation blocking the rest. That meant many Mayan sites remained shrouded in literal darkness. Because of the thickness of the jungle, archaeologists could pass within a few dozen feet of a Mayan ruin and never know it.


Discovering a New Pyramid

Thanks to LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology, 60,000 structures belonging to the Mayans were discovered in September 2018 alone. One of the 60,000 structures discovered was a pyramid that is seven stories high. Before LiDAR, the large pyramid had simply gone unnoticed.

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Researchers used the new technology to take images of an area measuring 800 square by firing pulses of lasers that registered 900,000 times per second. This created images of the topography so accurate that any man-made structures stuck out from the natural vegetation enveloping it.


Ancient Roads Discovered

From the images gained through LiDAR technology, enough discoveries have been made to completely change how we think about the Mayans. One of those discoveries was a series of interconnected roads and highways that caused researchers to reassess previous estimates of the Mayan population.

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Currently, researchers estimate the Mayan population to have been between seven and 11 million. The discovery of the series of highways, however, has led researchers to believe the population could have been double that amount. The highways connected agricultural lands and would have drastically improved food distribution in Mayan society.


One Hundred and Fifty Square Miles of Modified Land Uncovered

The discovery of new ruins has led scientists to reevaluate not just where the Mayans lived, but also how. Lands previously thought to be too wet for farming have now been found to contain evidence of previous agricultural use.

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The research team found close to 150 square miles of modified lands and nearly three times that amount of land that would have been viable for farming. More farmland means more food, and more food means a larger population. That in turn made it easier for the Mayans to accomplish tasks like road building.


The Infrastructure of Mayan Society

The Mayans also had complex and historically unique water management systems. They relied almost entirely on cenotes — giant sinkholes filled by underground water sources —since there are no major water sources that run through Central America.

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Researchers have found over 2200 cenotes in the area. Some had cities built around them with pathways and stairs leading to natural cisterns. These findings show how Mayan civilization adapted natural resources to meet the needs of a growing population.


Similar Discoveries Made in Guatemala

While many Mayan ruins have been discovered in southern Mexico, especially the Yucatan Peninsula, others have been found in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

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In 2018, researchers using LiDAR found massive city walls around one Mayan ruin. The walls suggest that the people of the time period needed to protect themselves against invaders. War was probably common between the city-states of Mayan civilization, and the walls offered at least some protection against people who meant harm.

Structures on Top of Structures

Until recently, even when a Mayan ruin was found, there wasn’t an easy way to determine the full extent of the structure if any part of it was underground. Now, however, that’s beginning to change.

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Archeologists can now identify the presence of ruins even when they’re buried underground or hidden under another structure. The latter happened a lot — the Mayans often expanded upon existing buildings to suit their needs. This saved building materials and sometimes had symbolic importance, like when a new ruler built a structure over one belonging to the previous one.

Mayan Society Collapsed Before Europeans Arrived

Nojpeten, the last free Mayan city, fell to conquistadores in 1697. However, most Mayan cities were empty centuries before that. The Spanish found many cities hidden in the jungle, but in most cases, nobody was home.

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Unlike the Aztecs or Incas, who were both brought down by a mix of invading Spaniards and internal power struggles, the end of ancient Mayan civilization was less clear. Many theories exist as to what led to this abrupt migration, but because there are no written records from that time, the Mayans will always be shrouded in at least some degree of mystery.

The Mayans Retreated North

Mayan civilization did not disappear all at once. Instead, at the end of the Classic Period, the era when the Mayans were most numerous and at the height of their power, the cities of the southern lowlands were slowly abandoned. This happened around 1,100 years ago.

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The people from these cities didn’t just up and vanish. Instead, they moved to northern cities like Mayapan and Chichen Itza or established new ones in the highlands like Q’umarkaj. They continued to thrive for a time, but then the end came for them as well.

Mayan Society Declines

While it’s possible that the Mayans fell to an external threat like the Aztecs or some other group of people, the Mayans may have collapsed from the inside. As with any society, order was maintained through a complex social structure, and its collapse may have led to the end of Mayan city life.

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Mayan city-states were largely independent of each other, and wars between them were common. This in turn could have led the Mayan people to lose faith in their leaders. Because these rulers were held to be gods, this lack of faith could have led to the society's collapse.

Did Drought Impact Mayan Society?

A more recent theory that’s grown in plausibility is tied to deforestation. As the Mayans expanded, they cut down massive amounts of jungle to sustain themselves with agriculture. While the Mayans were advanced farmers who rotated their crops to preserve soil nutrients, this may have spelled their doom.

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Fewer forests meant less humidity was trapped over land, and that led to less rainfall. Evidence of decades-long droughts suggests that the Mayan agriculture may have destroyed the very resources needed to farm. Without rainfall for drinking and crops, cities were no longer viable to live in, and the people retreated into the jungle.

Secrets From an Ancient Lake

Archeologists estimate there as many as 2.7 million Mayan structures over 40,000 square miles they have yet to uncover, which should keep them busy for a while. However, LiDAR technology is not the only method available to uncover the mysteries of the Maya.

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Sediment from Lake Chichancanab in the Yucatan Peninsula confirms that around the time the Mayan population was declining, they were hit with a drought that reduced the water supply by 70 percent. Such a large drought would have led to massive problems.

Arrival of the Europeans

The first contact between Mayans and Europeans occurred in 1502. Bartholomew Columbus, brother to the famed explorer Christopher, met several Maya on a trading canoe off the coast of Honduras. He and his men promptly looted the boat.

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Another early European encounter took a very different turn. A Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero was shipwrecked along with several other crewmates and taken as a slave by the Maya. Guerrero earned his freedom and eventually became a prominent member of Mayan society and later fought his former countrymen.

Fall of Chichen Itza

As the Spanish invaded Mayan lands, they discovered old Mayan cities. One such ruin, Chichen Itza, was the site of battle between the two peoples. When a conquistador arrived in the empty city, he assumed he would face no resistance and set about dividing up the local lands.The Mayans were not pleased. They still held the city to be sacred and laid siege to Chichen Itza and the Spaniards within. After several months and a failed attempt to break out, the surviving Spaniards were forced to flee in the night.

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Nojpeten, the Last Mayan Stronghold

The city of Nojpeten, also known as Tayasal, remained free from Spanish rule thanks to its hard to reach location in Guatemala's lake region. In order to keep the Spanish at bay, the city promised to convert to Christianity, and the Spanish ultimately let the city be for a century and a half.

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In 1697, the Spanish decided they had waited long enough and were finally going to take the city of Tayasal. Two hundred and thirty-five Spanish soldiers armed with muskets invaded and took the city, destroying many items of cultural significance in the process.


Incidents of Travel in Yucatan

With every Mayan city now under Spanish rule, Mayan culture was driven underground. The new Christian rulers of the land had little interest in digging up the ruins of a pagan culture. That all changed with a book written in 1842 by John Lloyd Stephens.

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It was entitled "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan" and chronicled Stephens’ exploration of Mayan ruins in Mexico. Interest in the Maya surged as a result, and archaeologists have been studying them ever since.


Mayan Ideas of Beauty

Thanks to the work of researchers including John Lloyd Stephens and all who came after him, we know much about Mayan society despite the destruction of so many important artifacts. One thing we do know is that Mayans had an unusual sense of beauty.

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For instance, in Mayan culture, having sharp teeth or crossed eyes was considered attractive. A flat forehead was seen as so attractive that mothers would use a board to shape the foreheads of babies. Mothers might even dangle an item between a baby's eyes in an effort to make them go crossed.


Resourceful Approach to Medicine

One reason why Mayan society may have risen to such heights was because of how resourceful the people were in terms of medicine. The ancient Mayans used everything available to heal various ailments, including plants, trees and more.

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Researchers have discovered that the ancient Mayans even made prosthetic teeth and perforated them to add jade and other decorative stones. They also use human hair to suture wounds together and were skilled at mending broken bones


The Mayan Doomsday Date

According to popular theory, the Mayans thought the world would end on December 21, 2012. This theory has been debunked, however. The Mayans didn’t believe the world was going to end then or any other specific date.

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What led many to this misconception is the fact that the Mayan calendar recycles every 8000 years. December 21, 2012 date was when the calendar was due to reset, but the Mayans never said anything about it being the end of the world.


Date the World Was Created

The Mayans were keen observers of star patterns and the movement of celestial bodies. By studying the Earth's movements in relation to the stars, the Mayans even believed they had determined the exact date the world was created on: August 31, 3114 BCE.

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The Mayan calendar consisted of different day counts that worked together to describe time. One such count had 365 days, with each one bearing a specific name. All newborns were named after the day of the year on which they were born.


Chichen Itza's El Castillo

The ancient city of Chichen Itza is arguably the best-known Mayan ruin. The famous ancient city is believed to have been built sometime in the 500s AD. The great pyramid inside Chichen Itza was named El Castillo by the Spanish.

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The pyramid speaks to the Mayans’ understanding of their role at the heart universe. There are 365 total steps on El Castillo, one for every day of the year, and each side of the pyramid has 91 steps plus one more at the top.


Water From Underground Caves

The Mayans relied on cenotes for freshwater. These natural sinkholes exposed underground rivers that provided the Mayans with nearly unlimited water. Chichen Itza’s cenote likely played a role in it becoming such a thriving city.

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The Mayans also used these caves for rituals. In order to appease the god of rain, sacrifices had to be made. When the cenote of Chichen Itza was drained in 1904, countless skeletons from sacrifices were found as well as jewels left as gifts for the god.


Mayan Writing and Language

The ancient Mayans had the most advanced written language in Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, most Mayan texts were destroyed by the Spanish. Because the Mayan language is also very complex, making sense of Mayan texts is difficult.

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Beginning in the Preclassic Period, Mayan culture flourished throughout Central America and spread various dialects of the original Mayan language, leading to 30 different languages that survive today. today. Around five million people still speak such languages.


Mayan Weaponry

Mayans didn’t use metal in their weaponry even though they may have had the capability at the time. Instead, they used obsidian, a type of volcanic rock. While obsidian is easily shaped and sharpened, it breaks easily as well.

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The Mayans used obsidian for the tips of darts and throwing spears as well as melee weapons. While they also used bows and arrows, they were rarely used until after the Classic Period. Mayan armor consisted of quilted cotton soaked in salt water, which could be surprisingly tough.


Mayan Human Sacrifice

While human sacrifices may not have been as common as other types of ritual sacrifice in Mayan culture, it did play an important role in religious practices. The method of human sacrifice was often pretty gruesome.

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Sometimes a sacrifice was as simple as shooting a person with a barrage of arrows. Other times, victims were painted blue and had their heart cut out by a priest while still alive. Other sacrifices involved being skinned alive.


Human Heads Used as Balls for Games

Sports where teams compete to put a ball into a net or goal are common throughout human history, and the Mayans were no exception. They played a game on an "I" shaped court where points were earned by getting the ball to one end of the court. Slanted walls kept the ball on the field, and players moved it by bouncing it off their hips. Courts for such contests have been found in nearly all Mayan cities.

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It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Sometimes the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to appease the gods, while on other occasions, the sport was played between local rulers to settle territorial disputes.


The Mayans Live On

Despite centuries of Spanish oppression, the Mayan people is still alive today. While they sometimes faced genocide or were forced to adapt Spanish culture and language, many villages were remote enough that the people were able to preserve their culture.

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Descendants of the Mayans still play a variation of their ancestor’s ball game today — Ulama. Instead of the heavy rubber ball and hard, dangerous court used by the ancients, the game is now played with a modern ball on grass or other softer surfaces. Sacrifices are no longer trendy.


Mayans Today

Mayans today often live in small agriculture villages that in some ways are similar to the old Postclassic Period farming settlements. While they mostly practice Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, many of the old ways are incorporated into their new faith in their domestic lives.

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Many Mayan communities focus on growing squash, beans, corn and other crops. Poverty is common in Mayan villages, and Mayan people often face discrimination and government oppression. Even so, the descendents of this ancient civilization continue to live and carry old traditions into the modern world.