Do civilizations really collapse?

This story, gleaned from the archaeological evidence at Cancuén, tells us about an individual rapid collapse – the violent end of one Maya state and its elite class. It was undoubtedly terrifying and traumatic for the defeated. It came at the hands of an unidentified enemy, which the anthropologist David Freidel at Washington University in St Louis says ‘might have been a nobles’ revolt, a peasants’ revolt or an outside attack … We just don’t know.’ We can only guess at the motivation for the attack.

The Maya did not disappear, though cities were abandoned and, over time, the population fell and aspects of Classic Maya life changed – the rule of the mighty holy lords, the k’uhul ajaw, was rejected. They were still there, living in a complex society, when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Cities and trade remained, and the Maya collected their wisdom in books. During and after the period of the collapses, new cities were founded (or refounded) – Chichen Itza, Mayapan, and Uxmal in the dry northern Yucatán, and rivalries between noble families continued. Periodically, cities would be abandoned by elite groups or sometimes by the whole population. This happened for several reasons – infighting and political intrigue, famine and plague. At Mayapan, we know from historical records, the noble Xiu clan massacred their Cocom rivals, usually cited as the reason for its abandonment in 1441-1461 CE, but the city might have suffered endemic violence for two centuries before this. Perhaps Cancuén and other Classic Maya cities had similar problems that led eventually to their collapse and abandonment.