David Stuart, the eminent Maya epigrapher, once cogently remarked that the whole Late Classic period was a rehearsal for the collapse. By this he meant that the Maya have fooled us. We see great Late Classic centers such as Tikal or Copan, with their huge buildings, grand palaces, and assertive art and inscriptions as the high tide of Maya civilization. Instead, he suggests, fatal weaknesses lurked behind this glittering facade. The causes of its failure were embodied in its apparent success.
In 1525 Cortez the Killer and his army almost starved to death while crossing a wilderness that had supported millions of people 700 years earlier. The collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization is one of the great mysteries of history. I picked up this book (“The Fall of the Ancient Maya”) because I had visited some of the most famous Classic Period Mayan cities while traveling through southern Mexico and Guatemala, places such as Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Coba, Uxmal, and Copan, but I did not have a robust understanding of what had caused the Classic Maya to collapse or even what exactly was meant by “Collapse.” The Classic Mayan civilization existed from roughly 250AD to 1000AD. The peak was from 700 to 900AD. Then it goes into a decline that last a few hundred years, but finally it almost total. The most interesting thing I learned from the book is the completeness of the collapse. The real mystery that seems to remain is not why the collapse happened, but instead why it was so complete. The author presents a strong case that the fundamental reason for the collapse was that the Mayans did not manage their natural resources well. They overfarmed, destroyed the forest to plant crops, and this was all fine until they sorta reached a tipping point. At the tipping point there wasn’t enough food for all the people. When that happened there was chaos. The kings fell, the religion fell, the population decline, wars were constant. Eventually people fled or died. There were stragglers. Weird people living out in the jungle in really old haunted houses. That went on for a couple hundred years, but then finally the jungle had taken it all back and no even knew a lot of the old cities even existed. Good Book. Check it out.