At the end of the first millennium A.D., the lowland Maya empires disintegrated after 750 years of prominence (Handout 1). Warfare, the growing population, resource depletion, and climatic fluctuations contributed to the downfall of the Classical lowland empires (Schele and Freidel 321). 500 years later, the scattered Maya that remained would again face a crisis as the Spanish conquistadores invaded Yucatan, conquered, and began to rule. Though the Spanish conquest of the Maya brought a new religion and diseases that decimated the population, the collapse of Classical Maya civilization was the greatest crisis in Maya history. It marked the end of the great Classical empires whose knowledge and artistic achievements surpassed all contemporary American civilizations. Never again would there be such a widespread, flourishing culture in the lowlands, and the lifestyle of the lowland people was significantly altered. In contrast, the years following the Spanish conquest brought continuities in village governing structure and religious syncretism, which did not drastically change the structure of Maya people’s lives.
Prior to its collapse, Maya Classical civilization was one of the largest and most advanced in Mesoamerica. 60 kingdoms, ruled by the noble ahauob, flourished at the height of civilization in the 8th century (Schele and Freidel 59). Tikal, the largest city-state, had a population of 500,000, though most cities were smaller (Schele and Freidel 57). Each city was ruled by a king who commanded the respect and loyalty of the peasants with his ability to contact the Otherworld through a portal that he opened by spilling his own blood (Schele and Freidel 118-9). Kings also gained honor through taking captives, or later, by conquering another city and controlling its portal to the Underworld (Schele and Freidel 130, 143, 153). The Maya participated in extensive trade networks, as the Spanish discovered when Columbus captured a trading canoe off the coast of Honduras that contained cacao beans, Mexican obsidian, copper axes, woven garments, and slaves (Clendinnen 3).
The fall of lowland Maya culture resulted from a confluence of factors. Over-population and environmental degradation led to malnutrition and disease, as residential complexes expanded to cover agricultural land and the clearing of forests for milpa agricultural resulted in erosion (Schele and Freidel 321). Social stress compounded the environmental strains, and warfare between neighboring states also affected the morale of the population (Lecture 2/10). The kings attempted to address these problems, but pride and exclusivity prevented them from sharing power or admitting defeat at the hands of an enemy (Schele and Freidel 347-8). The collapse of Teotihuacan in the 7th century A.D. altered trade and power relationships, which also may have contributed to the tumultuous state of the lowland empires prior to their collapse (Lecture 2/10).
The collapse of the...