Environmental challenges, disputes with neighbors, and scarcity of resources led to the Mayans at war. For many years, archeologists thought the Mayans a peaceful people, capable of war, but rarely indulging in it. However, as archeologists explored more Mayan cities and more evidence was uncovered, they realized that Mayans often fought wars, especially during the Late Classical era of 600 to 900 A.D. In fact, during that time a series of misfortunes hit the Mayans:
- population exceeding the carrying capacity of the land
- deforestation leading to soil erosion
- decrease in soil fertility
- sustained drought
- malnutrition and disease
- decreased trust in Mayan rulers
- growing hostility among city-states as resources became scarce
- endemic warfare
Earlier wars were fought for captives for human sacrifice, and for land, natural resources and control of trade networks. City-states might even have arranged battles for captives as the Aztecs did with their Flower Wars.
However, the population growth and environmental destruction of the Late Classical era meant less food to feed the hungry cities. War for resources became endemic with battles fought between big city centers that dragged in many smaller polities. As warfare became more extensive and constant, Mayan societies began to fall apart. Finally, surviving Mayans abandoned their lowland cities and disappeared from that area.
The Mayans were fierce warriors, while not quite at the level of the Mongols, still a deadly threat to their neighbors.
Mayans at War: Long Distance Weapons
The Mayans had both long-distance weapons and melee weapons. The long distance ones included bow and arrow, blowgun, slings and throwing spears. When the atlatl or spear thrower was brought to the Mayans from Teotihuacan around 400 A.D., it was quickly adopted and became the Mayans’ dominant long distance weapon. The atlatl greatly increased the accuracy, force and range of the spear; when thrown from an atlatl a spear reportedly could pierce the Spaniards’ metal armor. The blowgun was predominantly used for hunting, but it had some wartime uses as well. Mayan warriors used bow and arrows more during the Post-Classical era.
Mayans at War: Melee Weapons
When armies clashed in battles, they used melee weapons, including clubs, axes, stabbing spears and knives. They Mayan war club resembled that the Macuahuitl of the Aztecs in that it was lined with obsidian blades on three sides. These 42-in long clubs could stun, break bones or cut. They were capable of cutting off a horse’s head. Mayans also used axes with heads of stone, obsidian, flint or bronze. The sharp edge of the axe could kill, but the dull edge could stun. The object of the battle was often to capture, not kill, enemy warriors, making the axe a good weapon. In hand to hand combat, the Mayans used the same 10-inch blade knives they used in sacrifices.
Mayans at War: Defensive Weapons
The Mayans built fortifications around some of their cities. Examples of this include Seibal and Tikal. For defense, warriors carried shields and elites and veterans wore thick, cotton armor treated with rock salt that could withstand obsidian. Helmets were unknown and warriors wore elaborate headdresses instead. Warriors also used body paint and animal skins to show their status.
Mayans at War: Unusual Weapons
The Popul Voh, the book of the Kiche Maya, tells of hornets and wasps used as defensive weapons. When attackers came, defending warriors had gourds filled with hornets that they threw into the midst of the attackers. Hornets erupted out of the gourds and angrily attacked, killing many warriors. The defenders won the battle.