How did the Mayan Civilization Disappear? – 10 Possible Causes

Although the descendants of Maya can be found all over the world today, their civilization that thrived during the first millennium A.D. had disappeared. 

Early hunter-gatherers of the Americas were the first founders of the Mayan civilization. Those people once roamed in the lands of current-day Mexico and Central America. 

They developed effective farming and established densely inhabited villages. At its peak days, Mayans also built large cities. 

Mayan pyramids, temples, burial mounds, and other structures hold clear evidence that Mayans once employed urban planning methods based on a grid system

However, Mayans civilization mysteriously collapsed in 9th century after 2000 years of its existence. Now, some mixed speculations and theories try to explain the disappearance of the civilization. 

This article includes 10 possible causes that might have led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization.

1. Mayans were never united.

The Mayan civilization included several cities all of which had been ruled individually by kings and city elders. 

Therefore, Mayan civilization did not vanish from the face of the earth all of a sudden. 

Some cities, such as Copan, Tikal, and Palenque had been abandoned around 1,100 years ago, while other Mayan cities were deserted much later.

It is also important to mention that when there is no unity, the civilizations can’t sustain their existence. That was one of the reasons why Mayan cities lost their momentum of growth.

2. Drought was Mayans’ main enemy.

Having no adequate water or precipitation for crops may have led to the food shortage in some Mayan cities. 

Being depressed with hardships and shortages, Mayans might have left the cities to look for opportunities elsewhere. 

3. Spanish conquistadors conquered the last independent Mayan city. 

Nojpeten was the last independent Mayan city. It was located in present-day Guatemala and was conquered by Spanish troops in 1697. 

After the arrival of Spanish colonists, none of the independent Mayan city raised from the dust. 

After departing from their well-established cities, Mayan people spread to the remote territories of northern Central America and Southern Mexico. 

Mayans still live in Belize, El-Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico.

Those abandoned cities were remained largely forgotten until the 19th century. Only archeological and exploration journeys shed new light onto the forgotten Mayan cities.

4. Deforestation may be the biggest reason.

Deforestation refers to clearing a large number of trees from one area to make space for human activities such as farming and settlements. 

A new computer modeling indicated that the areas once Mayan cities located had experienced severe deforestation. 

As Mayan cities grew bigger, they exploited much of the nearby tree populations.

For example, according to specialists, the construction of a single square meter of the cityscape requires about 20 trees. 

Deforestation also impacted the volume of rainfall and contributed to the drought. 

It is because cleared lands poorly absorb the solar radiation. As a result, less water evaporates from that area, creating fewer possibilities for cloud formation.

In the case of the Mayan civilization, deforestation-induced drought might have led to crop failures, food shortages, and lessened trade possibilities.  

5. Armed conflicts between city-states.

Mayans never lived under a single kingdom. Instead, they lived in city-states where communities were ruled by elders and elected leaders. 

As more city-states grew bigger, so did their desire to conquer and obtain power, land, and natural resources to sustain their growth.

So, Mayans engaged in armed conflicts with their neighboring cities. 

Arrowheads and other types of archeological artifacts indicate that Mayan cities lived in a precarious lifestyle in the 9th century. 

6. Overpopulation might have pressured Mayans to flee the big cities.

Who likes to live in overly populated areas? 

Overpopulation usually creates food and housing shortages. This might have been the case in Mayan cities as well.

About 90% of Mayans were farmers and the rest were the ruling class. 

Being exposed to the hardships of overpopulation, farmers might have revolted against their ruling elites since the elite could not fulfill their role as protectors, providers, and the intermediaries between gods and the farmers. 

The large-scale uprisings and revolts among farmers might have contributed to the collapse of social structure inside Mayan communities. 

7. Foreign occupation is one of the theories but not so convincing. 

As we already know, foreign occupations have brought several kingdoms to their knees. 

Although some historians believe that Mayans civilization also collapsed because of foreign intervention, there is not rock-solid evidence to support such claims.

Most of the evidence point that Mayan civilization collapsed from inside because of political and social reasons. 

However, natural factors such as drought, overpopulation, and a widespread pandemic are possible causes as well. 

8. If the Spanish haven’t burned down the Mayan writings, we would have a better understanding of the Mayan disappearance.

Early Spanish conquerors considered Mayans devil worshipers. So, they tortured them and destroyed their hieroglyphic writings, thinking those must be the tools of Satan.  

Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa was one of the leading destroyers. 

He set fire to volumes of original Mayan writings, which would have been a good source to understand the Mayan civilization in our modern times.

De Landa’s main mission was to convert Mayans to Catholicism. He considered Mayans superstitious savages who were worshipping the wrong gods.  

Also, the Spanish forced Mayan scribes to learn European scripts and forget their original alphabets. 

All these actions eventually accelerated the disappearance of the Mayan civilization. And, it is one of the reasons why we do not know a whole lot about Mayan civilization today.

9. The disease of Maize may have pressured Mayans to relocate to different areas. 

Tiny planthoppers known as Peregrinus Maidis may have pressured Mayans to desert their well-established cities as those insects can cause crop failure of maize. 

Mayans heavily relied on Maize as their primary food source. And, it is possible that they were willing to leave the cities of their ancestors to ensure their survival. 

10. An alien invasion and widespread pandemics are another two theories.

We have listed both of these causes under a single section because both of them have no evidence.

Alien invasion theory sounds good in science fiction; however, it is controversial to apply it to solve the mystery of Mayans.

Yes, Mayans illustrated the images of alien-looking creatures on their temples but most of the historians are not willing to associate them with actual aliens. 

Instead, historians believe those images represent symbolic human language.

The widespread pandemic theory is also popular. But it is unlikely since Mayan left the cities in different periods.

By Arslan Batyrovich

Founder of
Writer, Researcher, Fact-finder, and All-in-one
Loves nature, Likes history, and Adores anything interesting
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