While most readers are aware of the more famous collapse of the Classic era, an earlier Mayan collapse preceded it during the Late or Terminal Pre-Classic era. The reasons for the earlier collapse remain as murky as those for the later, but both emptied out great Mayan cities and resulted no doubt in much death and destruction. Neither, however, ended Mayan civilization, as millions of Mayans remain in their historical homelands even today. Both collapses remain one of archeology’s greatest mysteries.
What caused these societal collapses? There are many theories, but archeological proof for one single cause is lacking. We know, from looking at the downfall of past civilizations such as Rome, that a combination of causes is far more likely than one distinct cause. Scholars today look at the many factors that could lead to the collapse of a vigorous society, both external and internal. Scholars cite environmental degradation as a likely component: soil erosion, decreasing fertility of the soil, volcanic eruption, deforestation and drought were all elements of the ecological disaster for the Mayans. A population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment always leads to ecological destruction.
Other scholars look at societal pressures: decreasing natural resources that led to increased competition and endemic warfare over the same shrinking fertile lands. Political strife, the people losing faith in their leaders, elite competition, malnutrition and disease combined with massive environmental problems led to a drastic decline of Mayan populations in the Pre-Classic from A.D. 100 to 250 and at the end of the magnificent Classic era from 900 to 1100.
Mayan scholars put forth a variety of theories regarding the Mayan collapses including endemic warfare, foreign invasion, epidemic diseases, disruption of trade routes, climate change, systemic ecological collapse and long-lasting sustained drought. All of these and more may have contributed to massive declines in population and the abandonment of major Mayan cities. What is more remarkable is that the Mayan have survived it all, still retaining their culture and beliefs on the same land their ancestors held. While most Mayan today are Catholic, many retain elements of their culture and beliefs, even visiting their great cities of old.