The Maya civilization was one that produced works of art in many places, and is characterized by centers of their civilization such as Copán, Lamanai, Chichen Itza and Tulum. The pyramid temples that decorate those centers were constructed over centuries, and were added over the preceding ones when each successive ruler came into power. At the center of many outer layers of the temples there are found often graves of the rulers that had been in power in the reign before the one producing that upper temple. At a time around 1000 A.D., these centers of their civilization were left to the jungle, and habitation of them appears to have ended. They are being rediscovered now, and excavated, after centuries of abandonment.
Many theories about the reason for collapse, or abandonment and termination of the temple areas, are found in study of them. Generally, the period that saw cultural centers hold sway ended by the year 1000 A.D., and the Maya civilization moved into areas outside the temples although some signs of later visits, giving offerings, are found at the temple centers.
The Maya often recorded dates on monuments they built. Few dated monuments were being built circa 500 – around ten per year in 514, for example. The number steadily increased to made this number twenty per year by 672 and forty by around 750. After this, the number of dated monuments begins to falter relatively quickly, collapsing back to ten by 800 and to zero by 900. Likewise, recorded lists of kings complement this analysis. Altar Q shows a reign of kings from 426 to 763. One last king not recorded on Altar Q was Ukit Took, “Patron of Flint”, who was probably a usurper. The dynasty is believed to have collapsed entirely shortly thereafter. In Quirigua, twenty miles north of Copán, the last king Jade Sky began his rule between 895 and 900, and throughout the Maya area all kingdoms similarly fell around that time.
A third piece of evidence of the progression of Maya decline, gathered by Ann Corinne Freter, Nancy Gonlin, and David Webster, uses a technique called obsidian hydration. The technique allowed them to map the spread and growth of settlements in the Copán Valley and estimate their populations. Between 400 and 450, the population was estimated at around six-hundred people; this rose to a peak of twenty-eight thousand between 750 and 800 – larger than London at the time. Population then began to steadily decline. By 900 the population had fallen to fifteen thousand, and by 1200 the population was again less than 1000 in Copán.
Some ecological theories of Maya decline focus on the worsening agricultural and resource conditions in the late Classic period. It was originally thought that the majority of Maya agriculture was dependent on a simple slash-and-burn system. Based on this method, the hypothesis of soil exhaustion was advanced by Orator F. Cook in 1921. Similar soil exhaustion assumptions are associated with erosion, intensive agricultural, and savanna grass competition.
More recent investigations have shown a complicated variety of intensive agricultural techniques utilized by the Maya, explaining the high population of the Classic Maya polities. Modern archaeologists now comprehend the sophisticated intensive and productive agricultural techniques of the ancient Maya, and several of the Maya agricultural methods have not yet been reproduced. Intensive agricultural methods were developed and utilized by all the Mesoamerican cultures to boost their food production and give them a competitive advantage over less skillful peoples. These intensive agricultural methods included canals, terracing, raised fields, ridged fields, chinampas, the use of human feces as fertilizer, seasonal swamps or bajos, using muck from the bajos to create fertile fields, dikes, dams, irrigation, water reservoirs, several types of water storage systems, hydraulic systems, swamp reclamation, swidden systems, and other agricultural techniques that have not yet been fully comprehended. Systemic ecological collapse is said to be evidenced by deforestation, siltation, and the decline of biological diversity.
In addition to mountainous terrain, Mesoamericans successfully exploited the very problematic tropical rainforest for 1,500 years. The agricultural techniques utilized by the Maya were entirely dependent upon ample supplies of water. The Maya thrived in territory that would be uninhabitable to most peoples. Their success over two millennia in this environment was “amazing.”
That they had been great and a center of the civilization gave the mystery and the grandeur to these centers. They remain as they are, isolated and magnificent, because of the abandonment that occurred. Had they continued to be inhabited and each successive tier added on to them, we would not have the distinct temples that we have found today, each distinct and ending around 1000 A.D.
At the trading center of Blue Creek, in Belize, excavations by Dr. Thomas H. Guderjan revealed that a ceremonial layer of broken pottery topped the last, and topmost, of the temples that had been built in layers. A cache of jade in connection with a burial site betokened ritual sacrifice and formed the fourth largest find of jade on the continent. Some sites in other areas also contained human sacrifices along with shattered pottery and discarded valuables. The end of a leader’s rule seemed to call for this ceremonial termination, and the closing of a temple.