Understand, Predict, Innovate Judiciously or Die: Why The Maya Collapsed

Civilizations are dynamically technological, or they are not, and they fall, like a cyclist trying to stand on just two wheels without moving. It is actually worse than that: the man-made ecology, the bicycle any civilization is riding, is always changing, as the civilization depletes whatever it is exploiting.

And the more successful it is, the more the ecology a civilization depends upon gets depleted. It is not just a question of having limits to growth in general, but of a progressive collapse of the particular type of growth which brought success… to a given civilization, so far. When old growth is sick and exhausted, one has to get a divorce, and adopt a new growth model which is smarter. Staying faithful to an ecology one has killed, brings only more killing. We will focus here on the Mayan collapse which overall, lasted three centuries, and was characterized by a megadrought. Changes of Mayan behavior occurred during the collapse, but they proved insufficient to stop it. One can compare with other (partial) collapses, the most famous being that of the Roman empire in the Fifth Century.

The change from the Latin-Roman Catholic civilization to the Latin-Frankish civilization which succeeded it was primarily a change of growth model: the basic law, the spirit of Roman Republican law, was unchanged. The Franks adopted a superior growth model (in this order: religious tolerance, more secular education, no more slavery).

Eurasia and the “West” provide many examples of this, changing growth models in a smart way. This is why and how “the West” and East Asia came to dominate the world. A case in point is the contemporary rise of China, which, in light of full Chinese history and the secular technological-legal mood which often drove it, is more of the same “socialism with Chinese characteristics”… which is at the core of the Western success too.


The Maya provide a warning of what happens when one succumbs to hubris while lacking long duration smarts:

The Maya did not understand, predict, and innovate in a timely manner, and hubristically adopted an erroneous growth model, making a bad situation worse. By the Eighth Century, around 750 CE, Mayan society had thrived for more than 2,000 years. The population was at an all-time high: high-tech mapping suggests that at least 10 million people may have lived within the Maya Lowlands alone. 40 major new stone buildings were built every year (it used to be 10, it would fall back to zero after 900 CE). Mayans were experts in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, with a complex language of written symbols. The city-state of Tikal comprised more than 61,000 stone buildings.

Then a megadrought struck. It was the worst drought in 7,000 years, it lasted more than two centuries, and became terrible after 1000 CE (when most of the Mayan civilization had already disappeared). That megadrought was partly a consequence of human, Mayan, activity (greenhouse warming plus deforestation so drastic fundamental some raw materials were gone). Devastating wars of cities against cities, rebellions, killing of the incompetent elites, and the burning of cities followed.

Population collapsed. Less than 200 years later, the core of the Maya civilization (the southern lowlands) was no more (most of the rest would progressively go down in the next two centuries, as the drought kept on going). A civilization that had stretched across southern Mexico and Central America was nearly completely gone (the Conquistadores would meet its haggard remnants). 

The Mayan collapse was not caused by invasion (Toltec influence or not)… whereas Athens, Rome, Constantinople, the Xi Xia, and of course the Mexicans, fell partly, mostly, or completely, from invasion, the Mayan collapse is a study in self-generated devastation. (It is not that the Mayans were particularly stupid; just the opposite: they succeeded to create a massive civilization in an unlikely place, thanks to advanced technology, massively deployed; but that civilization was vulnerable: there had been a first collapse after a megadrought around 200 CE; see graph below.)

There are a number of theories to explain what happened to the Maya. However, from my point  of view it is possible to gather all these theories in just a single logic. The Mayan collapse was greatly an implosion of a highly technological society from ecological collapse with population, war and hubris loss of control as triggers: the social and religious implosions are consequences of the technological implosion

Graph from Professor Kennett, expert of the subject. Several things from it. Around 200 CE there was a first drought, and a first collapse. It is imaginable that the causes were the same, and that the absence of books and a strong intellectual class led to a repeat. When the late classic collapse started the drought was not that bad and just reflected poorly from the wet 2 centuries prior. However, the wars and the ecological devastation this relative difficulty caused made the situation way worse. Then the terrible drought after 1000 CE prevented any recovery.

There is evidence that the fall of Rome shares some of the elements of the Maya collapse:

Let me repeat this slowly: the Mayan ecological collapse started before the full impact of the mega drought. It was obviously caused by a population explosion in combination with mismanagement (namely Mayan wars; in the Seventh Century, Tikal lost its prominence thanks in part to an uppity warrior queen from a lesser city; Tikal would regain the upper hand, but with a mood that had changed towards more hubris than the climate could take).

Europe would experience something similar around 1300 CE. In the last two decades before 1300 CE, there were a few severe winters (foreshocks of the Little Ice Age). At the time, ushered by a technological and rational revolution, the European population was exploding, severely stressing the ecology. Successful intense agriculture and construction devoured the forests (a bit like Brazil nowadays)…

However, instead of sitting on their hands or going to war against each other, the European governments took ferocious countermeasures around 1300 CE, outright banning people from some mountainous regions to limit erosion and deforestation (Japan did something similar at the same time). When the Little Ice Age struck, followed by the Plague of 1348 CE, half of the population was killed, but society itself, give or take a few roasted noble families, and a few thousands peasants butchered, in the Jacqueries… society itself survived intact. Actually the economy rebounded and the Franco-French and Anglo-French gaily persisted into fighting each other for the control of France and Britain.  

Rome is another case of ecological implosion: clearly the metal mining of Rome collapsed a full century before the empire started to collapse socially, financially, militarily, and into barracks’ emperors anarchy. We know that Roman metal mining went down before anything else went clearly very wrong, by studying traces of metal in Greenland ice cores.

Why would the collapse of metal mining bring Rome down? Rome high tech society was extremely dependent upon metals. No more metal, no more economy, currency, military… or even roofs (!) When one reads Viking sagas, one is struck by the importance of mining, swords and forging. Superlative swords had names and were passed over the generations, and between clans. Rome had, by far, the largest army in the world all equipped with swords, helmets, armor, and other metallic objects. A Roman emperor would come to Rome in the Seventh Century to strip the metallic roofs, to make weapons to resist the Muslim invasion.


Often triumphant technology creates the conditions for its own failure. As shown by the Maya:

The Mayan irrigation system was gigantic. It used special materials. The Maya’s home was a tough environment plagued by droughts: what is called a seasonal desert. The land that they farmed was often porous limestone, rocky terrain with the water table often 100 meters below the surface, but also massive wetlands. How did they manage to feed their huge population in this chaotic environment?

It is estimated that the Mayan population may have been above 18 millions… Well, to start with, Mayans used the swamps, next to which their cities were located. About 40% of the Yucatán Peninsula is swamp today. The Maya mucked out the ditches, and tossed the soil onto the adjacent land, creating elevated fields which would kept the root systems of their crops above the waterlogged soil, while allowing access to the irrigation water. They also drained some land outright. That irrigated land is hundreds of kilometers across. Sixty or so cities each with a population of 60,000 to 70,000, sprouted during two centuries of abnormally wet weather, setting the Maya for a fall. 

On satellite pictures forests around Mayan sites look discoloured. On the ground remnants of orchards and edible plants are still in abundance.

Mayan lands are now a sea of green forest. However, their appearance in the Seventh Century was that of a man-made landscape. By 700 CE the Maya had completely run out of their main construction trees. It has been suggested that massive deforestation helped cause a megadrought. When the elites proved they had no solution but war of all against all, devastation followed.

The Mayan megadrought was caused mostly, or at least severely aggravated, by human ecological devastation. 

Not all megadroughts are that way. Across the Mediterranean and west Asia, the effects of the 4,200-3,900 years Before Present megadrought included synchronous collapse of the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia, the Old Kingdom in Egypt and Early Bronze Age settlements in Anatolia, the Aegean and the Levant. That megadought left marks all over the planet, including in Alaska and the Yukon. There was an estimated 30-50% reduction in precipitation delivered by the Mediterranean westerlies in the eastern hemisphere, where they provide for dry-farming and irrigation agriculture across the Aegean, Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Iran. There was a synchronous disruptions for the Indian Summer Monsoon. That was clearly a larger scale disaster where the human influence is not obvious… keeping in mind that a greenhouse caused by the rise of human agriculture, and herding which may have prevented what would have been otherwise significant cooling, 8,000 Before Present.

The Mayan megadrought was roughly coincidental with the “Middle Age Optimum”, when a warmer clime enriched Europe as glaciers retreated spectacularly (and the Viking got to Greenland and America). the phenomena are probably related (science to come). But the point is that Mayan agriculture made a bad situation way worse.


Agriculture Can Cause Ecological Devastation:

… This is something that the promoters of agriculture as a panacea keep on forgetting. Plants interact with the atmosphere and the climate. Large dark plants—such as dense tropical forest—absorb a lot of energy from the Sun. At the same time, they prevent much evaporation, thanks to their shade: a tropical forest is darker than a cathedral. Tropical forests restitute the sun energy, and the moisture, in the evening, making warm moist air rise high; it falls back as rain. 

Lighter colored plants (crops and dry yellow grasses like wheat) reflect some, and sometimes most energy. They act like snow, rising the albedo of the land, sending back sunlight energy to space. 

When a forest is replaced by thinner, less massive and less shady, lighter colored plants, the land reflects more sunlight, which cools the atmosphere (because the ground does not warm up, filling up with sun energy to give it back later). Cool air sinks, while water vapor needs to rise and condense to create a rainstorm. Without warm, unstable air rising into the atmosphere, rainstorms became less common. 

The lack of rain helps raise temperatures on land. When energy from the Sun reaches the ground directly, it either bakes the ground or it causes water to evaporate from the soil or transpire from plants. With forests producing less moisture and croplands holding less water, droughts deepened as more and more of the Sun’s energy heated the ground. Thus deforestation makes  droughts worse, and may even create a desert. An excellent example is an Hawaiian island which was deprived of its forest, and is now a baked red piece of land with low bushes, Kaho’olawe. 

In ancient times, the Maya had practiced good forestry management. They were not allowed to cut down the sacred groves. That changed during the Late Classic period with the adventures of Jasaw Chan K’awiil. The Tikal Maya had been defeated and had fallen to second-rate status prior to his ascendancy. Jasaw Chan K’awiil led an army to the competing city, Calakmul, captured its ruler, bound him, brought him back and sacrificed him. There was plenty of instability at the times, including the rise of ferocious warrior queens; one queen built the longest plastered white road going north among orchards and cornfields… to enable her army to go defeat a rising northern city, Chichen Itza.

In any case, Tikal had a one century hiatus characterized with neighboring competing cities having plenty of warrior-queens (at least ten). So agriculture can cause devastation and women can mean trouble… Queen Bathilde of the Franks outlawed slavery, successfully, not because she was weak, but because she was stronger than the (male) Chinese emperors who tried the same. Some of the pseudo-“woke” may be be rendered too awake from this essay….

Nice Quetzal hat… Maya Holy Snake Lord known as Lady K’abel who ruled El Perú-Waka’, a city-state one hundred kilometers west of Tikal…. for more than 20 years with her husband, King K’inich Bahlam II. She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and she carried the title “Kaloomte,” translated as “Supreme Warrior,” higher in authority than her husband, the king. This representation is not a figment of imagination: we have actually ceramic figurines of her!… And much documentation besides. The exact chronology of what happened is not fully clear yet, but plenty enough for the theme of this essay!

After these wars between cities, the Maya rebuilt the city of Tikal in a way never seen before. They began building huge temples that required considerable resources, especially large, straight trees whose wood could withstand the weight of tons of stone. Their choices were limited to two types of strong trees.

Jasaw Chan K’awiil tapped into their sacred groves to do this. The stands of virgin timber were more than 200 years old in some areas. After building a few of the temples, the Maya ran out of timber from the Manilkara zapota (sapodilla) tree. That wood is easy to work, until it dries up and becomes very strong. It’s denser than water. Then they switched to an inferior tree —Haematoxylon campechianum, logwood or inkwood — which is found in swamps. This had adverse consequences on the maintenance or expansion of the irrigation system.

Tikal’s irrigation system was high tech. It contained at least eight large dams, the largest with 75,000 tons of water, was used as a causeway linking two parts of the city. Dams were equipped with filtration sand boxes, to produce clean water. The quartz sand is not found in the Tikal area; it was imported from more than 30 kilometers away.

How permanent was the change the Mayan civilization at its apogee inflicted on Yucatan? Climatologist Ben Cook from NASA compared climate conditions during the late Mayan era with conditions during the early colonial era (1500-1650 CE), when land use was at a minimum and forests had regrown over Central America. The warming and drying trend had disappeared. 

However the Mayan civilization had not recovered its splendor: after 1200 CE and until the Conquistadores appeared, it was a shadow of its former self, the population being perhaps just a tenth of what it used to be… But it was not for lack of aggressivity: a severe and vast ambush was set by Mayans for the Conquistadores who had to flee back to their boats… And the last free Mayan city, Nojpeten, would fall only in 1697. Some have suggested that the remaining Maya went to the coast, where the Spanish found them. It is fascinating to see that the Mayan civilization couldn’t get restarted: the numerous giant cities were gone for good. But this is often the case of civilizational collapses…

What probably happened is that the Mayan way of life was a huge system which needed a technological know-how which had been acquired during millennia, and then was lost. A broken system can’t be reinstated overnight: the system may have been elaborated over centuries (the case of Rome, Athens)… or even millennia: the case of Mesopotamia, Egypt… And the MesoAmerican civilizations. 

Moreover books are important, as they store information, and not just the concept of the proverbial wheel. This has long been known: when Rome annihilated Carthage, all Punic books were destroyed. Except one: a treaty on agriculture. And indeed the Romans would make Africa a Roman granary, the region became more productive than it would be until the arrival of French. 

The Greek dark ages after the adventures of the Trojan War lasted 4 centuries. However, Western Europe and China have proven quite collapse resistant, probably for having cultural systems smarter than most, thanks to all the books… and aware of collapse, thus keen to take resistant measures. For example when the “First” Qin emperor ordered books to be destroyed, especially of the 100 philosophical schools, many Chinese knew what to do: they copied and buried the books. 

In the 1970s, most Maya scholars concluded that the demise of the Classic Period Lowland Maya was the result of complex systems interactions. Another way to put it is that a civilization has a mind of its own

A civilization doesn’t truly collapse until its culture and know-how have been eradicated. In the case of the Maya remnants of the culture survived (they still knew how to write codices)… but what did not survive was how and why to make Yucatan work, as it did at the apex of civilization.

Could the Maya have prevented their collapse? Some will shake their heads and observe that Mayans would have had to understand science we are barely establishing now pertaining to drought and deforestation. Some of the conclusions above have a fair amount of guesswork, philosophy and modelling, and a few obstinate ones would disagree. However, this guesswork, this philosophy was done in Europe in 1300 CE, and a terminal ecological crisis avoided.

So let me tell a personal anecdote: the philosophical method rises the personal and anecdotal to the general and systemic. When I was in Africa I saw municipal authorities cut a number of magnificent trees. Apparently, inspired by a devious sense of esthetics, they had decided an immense plaza looked even better by making it more desolate. I was shocked, and revolted. How could Senegalese, in a country that was obviously desiccating, cut trees which provided shade, cooling and moisture? Tropical trees can have these huge, incredible thick oily leaves which block sunlight. For me it was glaring that this policy favored desertification, and I had seen many examples of it around Senegal already, so I viewed it as a systemic policy symbolizing a perverse mentality. I was ten years old. So if a ten year old can figure out, that cutting trees dries the climate, and causes a desert, no wonder more ancient Mayans protected sacred groves. And then the question becomes how come Tikal changed ecological policy? The answer is the war mood and the hubris it brings: flushed by taking enormous risks defeating their enemies, Tikal leaders kept on taking risks, this time with the ecology, flaunting, to themselves and others, their covenant with god(s). 

Human reality works that way: exaggerated behavior, thanks to hubris and provocation, fail, fix it, fly again. This is how humanity learns… in a tribal setting. Civilizations can also learn that way. In the best places of Eurasia, like the Fertile Crescent, the Latium, India, China. In such places of Eurasia, the collapse of one civilization taught others nearby: this is the story of the Middle East where civilizations kept on crashing and rising again, until the double headed shock of Islam, followed by the Mongols (after that it was pretty much all the way down)…

But it’s not how all civilizations can learn. A civilization can become such an immensely complicated systems, that, once broken, it can’t be readily reconstituted... Such is the sad story of the Maya.

Patrice Ayme

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3 Responses to “Understand, Predict, Innovate Judiciously or Die: Why The Maya Collapsed”

  1. ianmillerblog Says:

    A megadrought would have rather terrible consequences now because the world population is growing at a rate that agriculture partly struggles to keep up. It brings other problems to exacerbate things. In NSW they appear to have a plague of mice. Our news here recently showed the inside of a granary that was covered with feasting mice. We are becoming increasingly dependent on an ever diminishing number of alternatives, and if a major catastrophe strikes I think we shall be in deep trouble.


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      We are megadry in California. The forest on my doorstep (mostly Blue Gum!) is mostly on its way to megadeath. Last year the fires in California were unbelievable. Should be worse this year. The way out is unclear. It is going to require lots of engineering.

      Plant new forests with trees adapted to much greater heat (and the pests to go with it). Mix new trees within present forests (British Coolumbia already does this… expecting not to be cool anymore…)
      Boost nuclear research, hook up clean new nuke power to water desalination.
      Save water.
      Develop hydroponic agriculture. Outlaw pesticides. Shoot down Biden’s 174 billion dollars for electric cars.
      Boost fundamental battery research, hydrogen…
      Fundamental research on vacuum energy (I proposed a machine)


  2. Patrice Ayme Says:

    Inaccuracy in the search for truth, always, at first. Not to be deterred, though…
    San Francisco is engaged in a water fight with the State… California’s central valley, the world’s top almond producing region, is a water guzzler… Hydroponics is the future. Especially in high rises…. Let’s adapt faster than the Maya did…


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