The Classic Maya Collapse: The Importance of Ecological Prosperity

By Katrina Armstrong
Earth Common Journal
2014, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

Classic Maya life heavily focused on art, science, mathematics, and religion and as the conditions of the environment and the political structure of Maya society worsened, both the culture and subsistence of Maya civilization were threatened (Hammond, 2000, p. 240). As these threats grew, the frustration of the inhabitants of Mayan cities increased and the people began to feel the full ramifications on a personal level. Because of the environmental degradation, they were unable to maintain their crops (Lucero, 2011, p. 480). As conditions worsened, their vulnerability grew and it became evident that future generations would be defenseless against the disastrous ecological state of the region that was left for them.

Additionally, due to the intense environmental deterioration in the region, there was massive species loss and the Maya were not able to meet their protein requirements, which contributed to malnutrition and famine (Richardson, 2000, pp. 310-311). Religion played a significant role in Maya culture and much of their time was dedicated to religious practices and rituals, but as time passed and conditions did not improve, their faith in the world began to crumble (McKillop, 2004, pp. 221-223). While regional variability is a considerable factor to recognize, the overall breakdown of a society, whether it is swift or more gradual, is something that is felt through generations and Mayan vulnerability increased over the years.

Ecological degeneration undoubtedly contributed to the societal issues that the Maya were faced with during the Classical Period in the southern lowlands. The collapse of the Classic Maya seemed rather inevitable considering the calamitous predicament they were faced with. The political system degraded most predominately through competition and lost trust in the ruler. Following this, the Maya people began to question their own existence due to loss of faith and witnessing all of the overwhelming external forces impacting their livelihoods.

As the Maya population grew and flourished into a dynamic civilization, the increased demand for goods resulted in resource exploitation. Mass settlement, fuel and lumber demand, and agricultural development led to appalling deforestation, resulting in soil erosion from mismanaged agricultural practices and a depleted ecosystem. These conditions initiated a series of reactions from the Maya, contributing to their already declining condition. The political structure of Classic Maya society was already faced with fierce competition, which was increased as time passed and cities grew. Additionally, the dire ecological state was considered to be something that the Gods, and ultimately the Maya ruler, had control over and as conditions worsened the political legitimacy, Maya faith, and the entire Maya existence was questioned.


The fall of the Classic Maya during the eighth and ninth centuries is a multi-disciplinary debate that has been going on for years. Both historically and presently, people have relied on the Earth for life and as seen with the Classic Maya, nature is in control of the world and human existence. This timeless nature-human relationship discussion is lengthy and complicated but it is something to keep in mind while reflecting on the series of events that followed the environmental degradation of the southern Maya lowlands. Although paleoclimatic and archaeological data have made remarkable contributions to the debate, there is still no universally accepted reason for the collapse of the Classic Maya. Additionally, there is no evidence that the millions of people who inhabited the southern lowlands migrated north or died (Richardson, 2000, pp. 98-100).

However, it is universally accepted that their collapse can be explained through a combination of the two possibilities; some Mayans would have migrated, others would have stayed in their cities and attempted to overcome the adversities they were faced with, but ultimately most would have died (pp. 98-100). Conclusively, the eventual fall of the Classic Maya can be attributed to a combination of ecological and social factors but given the evidence, it is indisputable that the degraded environment laid the critical groundwork for the series of catastrophic events that followed.

While there would have been some natural climate variability during the Classic Maya period in the Southern Maya Lowlands, there is a significant amount of research that indicates that Maya settlement, development, and activity had a substantial impact on the region and its ecosystems. The collapse of the Classic Maya can be explained through the causes and impacts of the megadrought. Although humans may need to use the resources provided by the Earth in order to survive, it is crucial to do so with great caution, understanding that they are not expendable. The collapse of the Classic Maya empire functions as a warning to current and future generations: humans are not separate from the natural world but they are a part of it.


Katrina Armstrong is a student in the Bachelor of Arts program at MacEwan University.


Abrams, E. M., & Rue, D. J. (1988). The Causes and Consequences of Deforestation among the Prehistoric Maya. Human Ecology, 16(4), 377-395. doi: 10.1007/BF00891649

Curtis, J. H., Brenner, M., Hodell, D. A., Balser, R. A., Islebe, G. A., & Hooghiemstra, H. (1998). A multi-proxy study of Holocene environmental change in the Maya Lowlands of Peten, Guatemala. Journal of Paleolimnology, 19(2), 139-159. doi: 10.1023/A:1007968508262

Curtis, J. H., Hodell, D. A., Brenner, M. (1996). Climate Variability in the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) during the Past 3500 Years, and Implications for Maya Cultural Evolution. Quaternary Research, 46(1), 37-47. doi: 10.1006/qres.1996.0042

Fash, W. (2002). Religion and Human Agency in Ancient Maya History: Tales from the Heiroglyphic Stairway. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12(1), 5-19. doi: 10.1017/S095977430200001X

Golden, C., Scherer, & Andrew K. (2013). Territory, Trust, and the Collapse in Classic Period Maya Kingdoms. Current Anthropology, 54(4), 397-435. doi: 10.1086/671054

Hammond, N. (2000). The Maya. London: The Folio Society

Lucero, L. J. (1998). Classic Maya Lowland Political Organization: A Review. Journal of World Prehistory, 13(2), 211-263. doi: 10.1023/A:1022337629210

Lucero, L. J. (2011) Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management. Water, 3(2), 479-494. doi: 10.3390/w3020479

McKillop, H. (2004). The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: W.W. Norton Company.

Richardson, G. B. (2000). Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Wahl, D., Schreiner, T., Byrne, R., & Hansen, R. (2007). A Paleoecological Record for a Late Classic Maya Reservoir in the North Petén. Society for American Anthropology, 18(2), 212-222. doi: 10.2307/25063105

Webster, D. (2002) The Fall of the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Webster, J. W., Brook, G. A., Railsback, L., Cheng, H., Edwards, R., Alexander, C., & Reeder, P. P. (2007). Stalagmite Evidence from Belize Indicating Significant Droughts at the Time of Preclassic Abandonment, the Maya

Hiatus, and the Classic Maya Collapse. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, alaeoecology, 250(1-4), 1-17. doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2007.02.022

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

After thousands of years of innovation, humankind has shaped the modern world into a new planetary epoch: the Anthropocene. This paper connects the human propensity to carve our comfortable, convenient civilizations into... MORE»
In Gallup’s 2016 environment poll, 64 percent of U.S. adults are now worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming, with a record 65 percent attributing warming primarily to human activities (1). These poll results come several months after the pivotal Paris Agreement taking place at... MORE»
This research lies at the nexus of political communication theory relating to emotional affect and political processing and the burgeoning field of sentiment analysis. News coverage can affect opinion both through the information it provides and the emotional reaction it generates. To better understand the affective content of news... MORE»
In an era of accelerated climate change, Canadian homeowners face growing financial exposures to environmental risks, and climate-related property damage now represents the largest aggregate cause of losses in the global... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in History

2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
India was ruled by the Timurid-Mughal dynasty from 1526 to 1857. This period is mainly recognised for its art and architecture. The Timurid-Mughals also promoted knowledge and scholarship. Two of the Mughal emperors, Babur and Jahangir, wrote their... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
The causes of the First World War remains a historiographical topic of contention more than 100 years on from the start of the conflict. With the passing of the centenary in 2014, a new wave of publications has expanded the scope and depth of historians... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
The Sino-Vietnamese War remains one of the most peculiar military engagements during the Cold War. Conventional wisdom would hold that it was a proxy war in the vein of the United States’ war in Vietnam or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
While the Cold War is popularly regarded as a war of ideological conflict, to consider it solely as such does the long-winded tension a great disservice. In actuality, the Cold War manifested itself in numerous areas of life, including the various... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11
This article analyzes the role of musical works in the United States during World War II. It chronologically examines how the social and therapeutic functions of music evolved due to the developments of the war. This article uses the lyrics of wartime... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 10
Early medieval Irish society operated on an elaborate power structure formalized by law, practiced through social interaction, and maintained by tacit exploitation of the lower orders. This paper investigates the materialization of class hierarchies... Read Article »
2021, Vol. 13 No. 05
Some scholars of American history suggest the institution of slavery was dying out on the eve of the Civil War, implying the Civil War was fought over more generic, philosophical states' rights principles rather than slavery itself. Economic evidence... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


What is the Secret to Success?
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School
The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts