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Using the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single Maya site, archaeologists have developed a precise timeline that clarifies patterns leading up to two major collapses of the ancient civilization.
Scientists have long puzzled over what caused what is known as the Classic Maya collapse in the ninth century CE, when many of the ancient civilization’s cities were abandoned. More recent investigations have revealed that the Maya also experienced an earlier collapse in the second century CE—now called the Preclassic collapse—that is even more poorly understood.
University of Arizona graduate student Melissa Burham works at a stone monument placed just before the Preclassic collapse in the 2nd century. (Photo: Takeshi Inomata )
Now, in a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , Takeshi Inomata, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, suggests both collapses followed similar trajectories, with multiple waves of social instability, warfare, and political crises leading to the rapid fall of many city centers.
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The findings are based on a highly refined chronology developed by Inomata and colleagues using an unprecedented 154 radiocarbon dates from the archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala, where the team has worked for over a decade.
Ruins at Ceibal, Guatemala. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )
While more general chronologies might suggest that the Maya collapses occurred gradually, this new, more precise chronology indicates more complex patterns of political crises and recoveries leading up to each collapse.
“What we found out is that those two cases of collapse (Classic and Preclassic) follow similar patterns,” Inomata says. “First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.”
Using radiocarbon dating and data from ceramics and highly controlled archaeological excavations, the researchers were able to establish the refined chronology of when population sizes and building construction increased and decreased at Ceibal.
A temple at Ceibal, Guatemala. ( Sébastian Homberger )
While the findings may not solve the mystery of why exactly the Maya collapses occurred, they are an important step toward better understanding how they unfolded.
“It’s really, really interesting that these collapses both look very similar, at very different time periods,” says coauthor Melissa Burham, an anthropology graduate student. “We now have a good understanding of what the process looked like, that potentially can serve as a template for other people to try to see if they have a similar pattern at their (archaeological) sites in the same area.”
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“Radiocarbon dating has been used for a long time, but now we’re getting to an interesting period because it’s getting more and more precise,” Inomata says. “We’re getting to the point where we can get to the interesting social patterns because the chronology is refined enough, and the dating is precise enough.”
In addition to Guatemalan archaeologists and students, collaborators on the work are from Ibaraki University, Naruto University of Education, and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan.
Inomata’s archaeological team working at Ceibal in Guatemala. (Photo: Takeshi Inomata )
Radiocarbon dating took place at Paleo Laboratory Company in Japan and at the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in the University of Arizona physics department.
The National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation, and the University of Arizona’s Agnes Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice funded the work.
University of Arizona anthropology professor Daniela Triadan excavates the collapsed facade of the royal palace of Ceibal, which was burned during the Classic Maya collapse in the 9th century. (Photo: Takeshi Inomata )
Classic Maya collapse
In archaeology, the classic Maya collapse is the decline of the Classic Maya civilization and the abandonment of Maya cities in the southern Maya lowlands of Mesoamerica between the 8th and 9th centuries, at the end of the Classic Maya Period. The Preclassic Maya experienced a similar collapse in the 2nd century. 
The Classic Period of Mesoamerican chronology is generally defined as the period from 250 to 900 CE, the last century of which is referred to as the Terminal Classic.  The Classic Maya collapse is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in archaeology. Urban centers of the southern lowlands, among them Palenque, Copán, Tikal, and Calakmul, went into decline during the 8th and 9th centuries and were abandoned shortly thereafter. Archaeologically, this decline is indicated by the cessation of monumental inscriptions  and the reduction of large-scale architectural construction at the primary urban centers of the Classic Period. [ citation needed ]
Although termed a collapse, it did not mark the end of the Maya civilization but rather a shift away from the Southern Lowlands as a power center the Northern Yucatán in particular prospered afterwards, although with very different artistic and architectural styles, and with much less use of monumental hieroglyphic writing. In the Post-Classic Period following the collapse, the state of Chichén Itzá built an empire that briefly united much of the Maya region,  and centers such as Mayapán and Uxmal flourished, as did the Highland states of the Kʼicheʼ and Kaqchikel Maya. Independent Maya civilization continued until 1697 when the Spanish conquered Nojpetén, the last independent city-state. Millions of Maya people still inhabit the Yucatán peninsula today. 
Because parts of Maya civilization unambiguously continued, a number of scholars strongly dislike the term collapse.  Regarding the proposed collapse, E. Wyllys Andrews IV went as far as to say, "in my belief no such thing happened." 
Researchers uncover new clues about Mayan civilization's collapse
Archaeologists have unearthed new clues about the mysterious demise of the Mayan civilization.
A team headed up by researchers from University of Arizona studied ruins in Guatemala and harnessed a slew of radiocarbon dates to shed light on ancient civilization.
The team used chronological data from a record-setting 154 radiocarbon dates at the archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala to pinpoint this new information, according to a statement on the university's website.
Scientists have long believed that the civilization underwent two major collapses, the first of which took place around the 2nd century A.D., and the second, around the 9th century A.D. The radiocarbon data and dating from ceramics and highly controlled archaeology excavations provided new information on the ancient civilization's two major collapses.
The data show that the collapses occurred in waves and were shaped by social instability, warfare and political crises. These events deteriorated major Mayan city centers, according to the team. In addition, the team used the information from the Ceibal site to refine the chronology of when population sizes and building construction increased and decreased.
The new data point to “more complex patterns of political crises and recoveries leading up to each collapse,” the team explained.
The results will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It's not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse,” said the study's lead author Takeshi Inomata, a University of Arizona anthropology professor and archaeologist. “First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.”
While the new findings do not completely solve the mystery of why the civilization collapsed, it gives better hints as to how it came undone, according to the team.
New clues about what caused the collapse of Mayan civilization
The abandoned cities and giant monuments of the Maya, found throughout the Yucatán, are one of the greatest mysteries in human history. Why did this great empire collapse suddenly in 950 AD, leaving its massive urban centers to be consumed by jungle? New evidence suggests that the Mayans may have created such vast farms that they managed to change the local climate in a catastrophic way.
It's long been surmised that the Mayan empire fell largely because of a 200-year drought that struck the region in 800 AD, but now it appears that the drought may have been amplified by Mayan agricultural practices. At the empire's height, in 800, scientists estimate that the entire Yucatán had been stripped of forests to make way for farms to feed Mayan urbanites. Farmers burned the native plants so they could plant maize and other edibles. By the time Europeans arrived on the continent, however, the Mayan cities had long ago been swallowed by jungle again. The Aztec empire was also an agricultural powerhouse, but hadn't deforested nearly as much land as the Maya.
Ben Cook, a climatologist who works with groups at NASA and Columbia University, has just published an analysis of historical climate models that show how the deforestation of the Yucatán could have helped tip the climate over into a drought. By analyzing climate simulations, Cook was able to determine that rainfall fell by 20 percent in the period between 800 and 950. It's likely that loss of the forest increased the albedo, or reflectivity, of the land's surface. With more light bouncing back into space, the area would have less energy to produce rainfall.
In a release about his work from NASA, Cook said:
I wouldn't argue that deforestation causes drought or that it's entirely responsible for the decline of the Maya, but our results do show that deforestation can bias the climate toward drought and that about half of the dryness in the pre-Colonial period was the result of deforestation.
In a sense, the Mayans were victims of their super-advanced agricultural techniques. They were the factory farmers of what Westerners would call the Medieval era. Just as people do in cities and farms today, the Maya managed to completely alter their environments and even change the climate.
Climatologist Dorothy Peteet, also associated with NASA and Columbia, has analyzed core samples to reconstruct historical climate conditions. She amplifies Cook's claims, explaining that deforestation could lead to local droughts in areas like the Northeast United States. She said:
People don't generally think about the Northeast as an area that can experience drought, but there's geologic evidence that shows major droughts can and do occur. It's something scientists can't ignore. What we're finding in these sediment cores has big implications for the region.
Though early civilizations concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence—including a civilization examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls—showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war mayan rival Mayan city-states the the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their history ritual.
Serious exploration of Classic Maya sites began in the s. By the history the midth civilization, a small portion of their system of hieroglyph writing had been deciphered, and article source about their history and history became known. Most of what historians know about the Maya comes from the remains of their architecture and art, including stone carvings and inscriptions on their buildings and monuments.
The Maya mayan made paper from tree bark and wrote in books made from this mayan, known as codices four of these codices are known to have survived. Life in the Rainforest One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate.
Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized [MIXANCHOR] of complex resources through irrigation and other techniques formed the basis of society. This was the case for the Teotihuacan of complex Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.
Angkor Wat as a microcosm of the civilization
As one of the most important Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat can be seen as a kind of bellwether for broader developments of the civilization.
It seems to have undergone transformations at the same time that the broader Angkorian society was also reorganizing. Significantly, though, Angkor Wat was never abandoned. What can be abandoned is the tired cliche of foreign explorers “discovering” lost cities in the jungle.
While it seems clear that the city experienced a demographic shift, certain key parts of the landscape were not deserted. People returned to Angkor Wat and its surrounding enclosure during the period that historical chronicles say the city was being attacked and abandoned.
To describe Angkor’s decline as a collapse is a misnomer. Ongoing archaeological studies are showing that the Angkorian people were reorganizing and adapting to a variety of turbulent, changing conditions.
Maya collapse: Trade patterns for crucial substance played key role
Shifts in exchange patterns provide a new perspective on the fall of inland Maya centers in Mesoamerica approximately 1,000 years ago. This major historical process, sometimes referred to as the "Maya collapse" has puzzled archaeologists, history buffs, and the news media for decades.
The new research was published online May 23 in the journal Antiquity.
"Our research strongly suggests that changing patterns of trade were instrumental in prompting the 'Maya collapse,'" said Gary Feinman, curator of anthropology at The Field Museum, which collaborated with the University of Illinois at Chicago on the study.
The new research casts doubt on the idea that climate change was the sole or principal cause, Feinman said, noting that some Maya centers, which flourished after the collapse, were located in the driest parts of the Maya region. Feinman said that climate change, along with breakdowns in leadership, warfare, and other factors, contributed to the collapse, but the shifting exchange networks may have been a key factor.
For the Maya, who did not have metal tools, obsidian (or volcanic glass) was highly valued because of its sharp edges for use as cutting instruments. Maya lords and other elites derived power from controlling access to obsidian, which could be traded for important goods or sent as gifts to foster important relationships with other Mayan leaders.
The Field Museum researchers found that prior to the fall of the Maya inland centers, obsidian tended to flow along inland riverine networks. But over time, this material began to be transported through coastal trade networks instead, with a corresponding increase in coastal centers' prominence as inland centers declined.
The shift in trade might have involved more than obsidian. Field researcher Mark Golitko said, "The implication is that other valuable goods important to these inland centers were also slowly being cut off." Golitko led the Social Network Analysis that graphically depicts the change in trade patterns.
Researchers compiled information on obsidian collected at Maya sites, and used chemical analysis to identify the source(s) that produced obsidian found through archaeological studies at each location. Obsidian from three sources in Guatemala and several sources in central Mexico and Honduras were identified. The researchers generated data for each of four time periods: Classic (approximately 250-800 AD),
Terminal classic (approximately 800-1050 AD), Early Postclassic (approximately 1050-1300 AD), and Late Postclassic (approximately 1300-1520AD). Using Social Network Analysis (SNA) software, the researchers developed maps illustrating which sites had the same or similar percentages of each type of obsidian, in each of the four time periods. These percentages were then utilized to infer the likely network structure through which obsidian was transported
A comparison of the resulting SNA maps show that Classic period networks were located in inland, lowland areas along rivers, mostly in what is today the northern part of Guatemala, the Mexican state of Chiapas, the southern Yucatan, and western Belize. However, maps bearing data from later time periods show that inland networks diminished in importance and coastal networks were thriving, in what today is the northern Yucatan and coastal Belize.
The SNA data "is a very visual way to let us infer the general layout of the networks that transported obsidian, and the likely paths it took," Golitko said.
Feinman termed the study results significant. "The use of SNA to display and analyze the obsidian data graphically gives us a new perspective on these data, some of which has been present for years."
The study did not explore the question of why the transport networks began to shift. Feinman said there may have been military animosities that made the inland, river routes less safe or easy to use, and added that during this period the seagoing transport may have become more efficient with larger canoes. He noted that scientists simply don't have the definitive answers to some of these questions.
Does this study provide lessons for modern-day civilizations? Not directly, Golitko said. However, he believes it does suggest that major impacts follow when large-scale social and economic networks or communication channels break down. The consequences of the breakdown of obsidian supply to parts of the Maya region, he said, is a lesson for the increasingly connected world in which we live today.
Largest, oldest Maya monument suggests importance of communal work
From the ground, it's impossible to tell that the plateau underfoot is something extraordinary. But from the sky, with laser eyes, and beneath the surface, with radiocarbon dating, it's clear that it is the largest and oldest Mayan monument ever discovered.
Located in Tabasco, Mexico, near the northwestern border of Guatemala, the newly discovered site of Aguada Fénix lurked beneath the surface, hidden by its size and low profile until 2017. The monument measures nearly 4,600 feet long, ranges from 30 to 50 feet high and includes nine wide causeways.
The monument was discovered by an international team led by University of Arizona professors in the School of Anthropology Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, with support from the university's Agnese Nelms Haury program and under the authorization of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico.
They used lidar -- or light detection and ranging -- technology, which uses laser-emitting equipment from an airplane. Laser beams penetrate the tree canopy, and their reflections off the ground's surface reveal the three-dimensional forms of archaeological features. The team then excavated the site and radiocarbon-dated 69 samples of charcoal to determine that it was constructed sometime between 1,000 to 800 B.C. Until now, the Maya site of Ceibal, built in 950 B.C., was the oldest confirmed ceremonial center. This oldest monumental building at Aguada Fénix turned out to be the largest known in the entire Maya history, far exceeding pyramids and palaces of later periods.
The team's findings are published today in the journal Nature.
"Using low-resolution lidar collected by the Mexican government, we noticed this huge platform. Then we did high-resolution lidar and confirmed the presence of a big building," Inomata said. "This area is developed -- it's not the jungle people live there -- but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape."
The discovery marks a time of major change in Mesoamerica and has several implications, Inomata said.
First, archaeologists traditionally thought Maya civilization developed gradually. Until now, it was thought that small Maya villages began to appear between 1000 and 350 B.C., what's known as the Middle Preclassic period, along with the use of pottery and some maize cultivation.
Second, the site looks similar to the older Olmec civilization center of San Lorenzo to the west in the Mexican state of Veracruz, but the lack of stone sculptures related to rulers and elites, such as colossal heads and thrones, suggests less social inequality than San Lorenzo and highlights the importance of communal work in the earliest days of the Maya.
"There has always been debate over whether Olmec civilization led to the development of the Maya civilization or if the Maya developed independently," Inomata said. "So, our study focuses on a key area between the two."
The period in which Aguada Fénix was constructed marked a gap in power -- after the decline of San Lorenzo and before the rise of another Olmec center, La Venta. During this time, there was an exchange of new ideas, such as construction and architectural styles, among various regions of southern Mesoamerica. The extensive plateau and the large causeways suggest the monument was built for use by many people, Inomata said.
"During later periods, there were powerful rulers and administrative systems in which the people were ordered to do the work. But this site is much earlier, and we don't see the evidence of the presence of powerful elites. We think that it's more the result of communal work," he said.
The fact that monumental buildings existed earlier than thought and when Maya society had less social inequality makes archaeologists rethink the construction process.
"It's not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible," Inomata said. "This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results."
Inomata and his team will continue to work at Aguada Fénix and do a broader lidar analysis of the area. They want to gather information about surrounding sites to understand how they interacted with the Olmec and the Maya.
They also wants to focus on the residential areas around Aguada Fénix.
"We have substantial information about ceremonial construction," Inomata said, "but we want to see how people lived during this period and what kind of changes in lifestyle were happening around this time."
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A team led by UA professor Takeshi Inomata developed a high-precision chronology that sheds new light on patterns leading up to the two major collapses of the Maya civilization.
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Clues to Mayan Prosperity
Archaeologist Stephanie Simms analyzes teeth from a human burial found at an ancient hilltop mansion called "Stairway to Heaven." She&rsquos seeking clues about who lived there. Was this the royal palace of a Mayan king?
Anthropology, Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History
Maya civilization thrived thousands of years ago in present-day Central America. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 BCE, and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico beginning around 700 CE.
Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists discovers the Maya may have been in the Yucatan as far back as 500 BCE. This new evidence indicates the Maya of this region had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.
In this segment from Quest for the Lost Maya, archaeologist Stephanie Simms analyzes teeth from a human burial found at an ancient Mayan site.
Scientific analysis of teeth can yield valuable data about what life was like for residents of the "Stairway Estate." The 1,200-year-old plaque contains traces of food, evidence of the Mayan diet. Analysis of the plaque reveals the Mayan diet was rich and diverse, and included many more plant-based foods than originally predicted. Some of these fruits and vegetables include squash, beans, tree fruit, and chili peppers. Evidence suggests ancient Mayans were skilled cooks who used a wide variety of foods and spices.
The segment also looks at indicators that some of the Maya living at this site may have been the first middle class of the Americas. Many people have a misconception that life for ancient Maya peasants was rough and poor, but this new evidence shows some Maya lived a very comfortable and prosperous existence.
How can the scientists tell what kinds of food the ancient Mayans at this site ate? What were some of these foods?
Scientists use chemical analysis of food particles found on the teeth of Mayan remains to determine the person's diet. They discovered the ancient Mayans at this site ate a large range of plant-based food, such as squash, beans, tree fruit, and chili peppers.
What does the diet of the Mayans here indicate about their social status?
The large variety of plant-based nutrients indicates that the people who lived here had extensive farming operations in the valley below.
What sort of dental modifications were found among the remains at the ancient Mayan burial site? Why would the Mayans have wanted to modify their teeth?
There were some teeth filings as well as inlays of jade, greenstone, or pyrite. Such ornamentation was considered to be cosmetically beautiful, and was a sign of a person&rsquos wealth.
What were other signs of wealth in these communities?
Scientists found stone buildings that probably housed skilled workers.
What does all this evidence point toward in relation to their society?
This evidence indicates that theirs was probably the first society with a middle class in the Americas.