Terminal Classic & Early Postclassic

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Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic periods (A.D. 800 – 1200)

The Terminal Classic period is characterized by dramatic changes in the Maya lowlands.  Few cities contain evidence for the construction of large civic architecture, there is little or no evidence for the commemoration of new monuments, and there is a rapid decline in population followed by the subsequent abandonment of most large centers.  Throughout the study of Maya prehistory, these events have traditionally been associated with the collapse of Maya civilization.  Over the last 50 years many theories have been proposed for the decline of the Maya.  These can be divided into two categories: theories emphasizing external factors and those emphasizing internal factors.

Theories that emphasize external factors include: 1) foreign invasion from the west and 2), changes in exchange (trade) patterns.  Proponents of the foreign invasion hypothesis argue that Mexican-related cultures (the Putun Maya from Tabasco) invaded from the west and disrupted Maya society to such a degree that it eventually led to their demise.  While evidence does exist that some sites along the Usumacinta River (like Seibal and Altar de Sacrificios) may have been taken over by other groups, this evidence is lacking at nearly all other sites in the lowlands.   Proponents of the trade hypothesis suggest that at the start of the Terminal Classic period there was a major change in trade networks.  Whereas earlier trade routes predominantly used an overland system, the Terminal Classic merchants primarily relied on maritime trade routes.  As a result of these changes many of the large, landlocked, cities (i.e. Tikal, Caracol, Calakmul) were bypassed.  Isolated from the rest of the Maya area, sites in the interior thus began to decrease in importance, their economy began to falter and were eventually abandoned for other cities in the network.

Internal factors include natural catastrophes, social upheaval, warfare, and ecological failure.   Those who propose natural catastrophes as the primary cause for the collapse argue that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, or epidemics (e.g. yellow fever) could have greatly disrupted Maya life and forced people to leave the area.  Although interesting, there is little or poor geological evidence to support widespread catastrophic disaster during this time.  Rarely too do people completely evacuate an area following short-lived catastrophes.  

The second hypothesis (social upheaval) was proposed by British archaeologist Sir Eric Thompson more than 50 years ago.  Thompson argued that following centuries of oppression the lower classes of Maya society may have revolted against the elite rulers.  Following their upheaval commoners refused to continue supporting the elite with tribute and discontinued to maintain the large cities.  This type of revolution would have disrupted socio-political control and eventually led to anarchy and the decline of Maya social order.  Accepted as a plausible explanation for many years, today there are few archaeologists who continue to support this idea.  

Other archaeologists have argued that increased warfare could have been the most important cause and effect of the collapse.  They propose that Maya warfare may have changed substantially during the Terminal Classic period.  Unlike the preceding periods, they suggest that Terminal Classic armies may have purposely destroyed conquered cities and enslaved or sacrificed their population.  This would have eventually disrupted the economic system to the point where life was no longer sustainable in the region.  As we noted above, there is considerable evidence that conflicts between Maya cities were more widespread toward the Late Classic period.  Monuments at many sites both record and vividly display the militaristic pursuits of their leaders.  Despite this evidence, however, there is limited data that suggest that Maya armies wantonly sacked the cities of defeated adversaries.  Furthermore, this hypothesis does not adequately explain why it is that the first sites to be abandoned are predominantly the larger, more populated and presumably the most powerful centers (e.g. Caracol, Tikal, Calakmul).  In fact, many sites, particularly those along major rivers, continued to thrive into the Postclassic period (e.g. Baking Pot, Lamanai, Santa Rita).

Perhaps the most credible, recent, explanation for the collapse has to do with ecological failure.  We know, for example, that by A.D. 800 most of the Maya area was occupied.  As indicated before, Belize alone could have had nearly one million inhabitants.  To feed all these people most of the available land would have had to be cleared and used for food production.  Besides food, however, ancient Maya people would have also needed a considerable supply of hardwoods.  Wood would have been necessary for cooking, for construction and particularly for producing white lime.  The white lime, or cal, was used in great quantities for processing corn before grinding and for plastering the floors and walls of the large temples, palaces and monumental architecture.  In conjunction with extensive land clearing for agriculture, the high demand for hardwoods would have led to widespread deforestation.   Under these conditions there is no doubt that heavy rainfall would rapidly lead to soil erosion.  Conversely, if the region experienced a long period of drought, (which are exacerbated by deforestation) most crops would have undoubtedly failed.  What if these conditions persisted for any length of time?  Farmers would have likely depleted their seed corn and would have been unable to produce enough food to meet the demands of a large population.  A decrease in diet would lead to poor nutrition that would in turn increase the occurrence of debilitating diseases.  In an effort to acquire the necessary resources to sustain their people, cities may have gone to war with each other but instead of achieving solutions, this type of conflict would simply add to the existing problems.  If these conditions persisted for a couple years, people would eventually make the only choice left to them, abandon their communities and move elsewhere.  

Recent scientific investigations suggest that this may have indeed occurred.  Studies of lake sediments in the southern Yucatan, Belize, and the Peten suggest that the area suffered long periods of very dry weather in the ninth century A.D.  This drought, however, did not affect all the Maya area, it was particularly intense in the most populated central lowlands.  In effect, ecological degradation was regional and particularly devastating in the most populated region of the Maya lowlands.  This phenomena is supported by archaeological data which notes that as cities such as Tikal and Caracol were abandoned, sites in the less affected north, like Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, and Chichen Itza increased in size and population. It was after the fall of the large central lowland cities, in fact, that northern centers rose to prominence and truly began to flourish.  In the Yucatan, Chichen Itza became the dominant center during the Early Postclassic. Maya traditions and civilization did not, therefore, collapse or disappear.  Its cultural heartland simply changed from the central lowlands to the northern lowlands.   It is here in the north too that Maya civilization continued to thrive well into the Postclassic and historic period.

Despite these changes, however, one should not assume that every single site in the central region was abandoned between 800 – 900 A.D.  In truth, several communities continued to prosper.  Baking Pot in the Cayo District was occupied until at least the start of the Late Postclassic (A.D. 1200).  In contrast, Tipu (Negroman), Lamanai and Santa Rita remained important centers that maintained contact with the cities in the north.  Later, they would also play pivotal roles in Maya – Spanish relations.


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