What Happened to the Mayans?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.