The Mayan Empire was a very mysterious civilization of people who, even today, puzzle the minds of the greatest researchers.  This ancient civilization took root in the Yucatan Peninsula as a border and a part of Mesoamerica.  The Yucatan Peninsula is on the southwestern portion of the Gulf of Mexico, which at that time was part of Mesoamerica. 

The Mayan Civilization evolved over many periods of time before its eventual downfall.  The Mayans began their evolutionary process in the middle Pre-Classic period.  They evolved over many periods after the Pre-Classic period, such as the Lithic, Archaic, Classic, Terminal Classic, Post-Classic, and the Post-Conquest periods.

These periods, during which the Mayans evolved, began at about 300 AD and ended at around 900AD.  There were two periods that were the most important in Mayan evolution, the Classic and Post-Classic periods. 

These periods were the most important because the Mayans disappeared at the end of the Classic and then reappeared to continue their rule in the Post-Classic period.  The Mayan Civilization was influenced most by two other civilizations, the Olmecs and the Aztecs. 

The Olmecs and the Aztecs both conquered the Mayans and during their rule of the Mayans they taught them a great many things.  For example, the Olmecs and Aztecs made the Mayans take part in religious ceremonies, which influenced the Mayan’s religion greatly.  They also taught the Mayans new skills, such as architecture, crafts, and building, that they used to advance their civilization.

The Mayans used many kinds of government to rule their empire.  Typically, kings of other conquering civilizations ruled the Mayans.  The kings that ruled the Mayan Civilization during the Classic Period were dressed like a deity of their civilization because the ruler was considered to be the highest in power, and therefore had to have a godly portrayal. 

In the Late Classic period the Mayans had city-states that controlled territories.  These city-states in turn had secondary, tertiary, and quaternary towns.  The Mayan Civilization had many rulers that conquered them and did many great things to influence and advance their civilization.  One example of this is the Palenque dynasty and King Copan’s dynasty.  King K’uk B’alam was the founder of the Palenque dynasty.  Hanab Pakal and his son, Han B’alam, governed the city of Palenque.

The ones that ruled the Mayan Civilization in the Classic period made many contributions to the Mayan civilization.  Jaguar the Great and Bird Jaguar the Great brought the city of Yaxchilan to prominence.  Cowac Sky defeated the rule of the Copan dynasty and created a monument at Quiriguia.  

However even though many contributions were made to the Mayan civilization in the Classic period, the southern dynasties that ruled the Mayans were coming closer to their end.  In the Post-Classic period other lands started to gain more power in military and in other ways as well.  The Mayan states of the Yucatan started to get jealous of the increased power of the other lands. 

As a result of the states’ jealousy, the Mayans were very eager to go to war with the other lands.  And when they fought the other lands, they had increased their power so much that they were effortlessly victorious over these Yucatan states.  After the Yucatan states lost the war against the other lands, the southern dynastic rule of the Mayan Civilization ended and the Mayans were on their own.

The Mayan Civilization’s disappearance is one of the most puzzling mysteries to researchers today.  The Mayans’ mysteriously disappeared in the Classic period, which obviously ended that period of Mayan rule.  They then mysteriously came back and repopulated the Yucatan. 

Researchers today do not know the cause of this strange disappearance and reappearance of the Mayans, which is why it is one of the unsolved mysteries of our time.  There are many known reasons for the decline and disappearance of the Mayan Civilization during the Classic period, such as population growth and increased scale of kingdoms. 

The Yucatan began to get overpopulated during the Classic period and eventually there was no more room on the Yucatan Peninsula for more people.  As a result of the overpopulation, the markets had to produce more food.  In other words, as more people came in, the demand for more food grew. 

As a result, the agriculture demands could not be fulfilled because, since the overpopulation took up almost all of the Yucatan Peninsula, there was no more room to grow food, and they were unable to fulfill the highly increasing demands for food.

Several other factors are also thought to have contributed to the demise of this civilization.  First, earthquakes occurred then, which destroyed their villages.  Second, religious and superstitious beliefs contributed to the Mayan’s decline.  Third, there were increased demands for agriculture the soil became exhausted and dry, and soon there were epidemic diseases that rapidly spread throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, killing many Mayans. 

The overpopulation and agricultural growth were resulted from the Mayan rulers’ ambitions that they had.  The Mayan population began to decrease since there was not enough food for all the people.  Most died of starvation and malnutrition, and thus the population decreased.  This population decline also led to the decline of the Mayans’ royal institutions, which meant general and political decline of the Classic Mayan government.

It is also believed that foreign civilizations conquering the Mayans and invading their empire also contributed to the Mayan Civilization’s decline.  The civilizations that invaded the Mayans are unknown, but some archeologists think that the invaders may have been from the Putun Civilization.  However, this is just a hunch and it is not proven to be true. 

Even though the foreign invasions helped in leading to the decline of the Mayan civilization, the latter may have been reformed by the conquering civilizations.  It is known, however, that the foreign invaders traveled from the gulf coast and destroyed the last Mayan cities, such as Tikal.

The Mayans experienced a drought during the Classic period, which left their soil exhausted and dry.  As a result of this drought, the soil was not good to be planted, and this led to the shortage of agriculture.  This drought was occurred because the Mayans had the lowest rainfall levels that they have ever had in history.  Many Mayan cities far from rivers were destroyed early, but cities close to rivers were able to survive for a while longer; however these were soon destroyed from the drought as well.

The Mayan cities started to be abandoned over a hundred years of time.  There is no definite reason or exact proven explanation of how or why the Mayans mysteriously disappeared and abandoned the Yucatan Peninsula during the Classic period.  As a result of all the problems that took place during the Classic period, the Mayans just abandoned their cities and disappeared leaving no trace of where they went. 

This disappearance ended the Classic period, and they eventually repopulated the Yucatan Peninsula in the Post-Classic period.  Some archeologists believe that foreign invaders caused the Mayan collapse from Mexico.  When the Mayans repopulated the Yucatan Peninsula in the Post-Classic Period, they became a less powerful part of Mesoamerica because of all the things they missed over the years that they disappeared.  How or why the Mayans repopulated the Yucatan in the Post-Classic period is not certain. 

In the late Classic period there was warfare in the southern lowlands, but not all cities of the Yucatan Peninsula.  During the Post-Classic period there were Spanish invaders that conquered the Mayans.  These Spanish invaders were called the Toltecs of Tula.  The Toltecs created their capital in the Mayan empire at Chichen Itza, which is in the northern region of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Mayan Empire ruled very well in the Classic and Post-Classic periods and needed some things to be able to rule well.  The main Mayan kingdom split up into smaller states and each individual state had its own theocracy.  The Classic period was known as a golden age for the Mayan Civilization. 

During the Transition period the Mayans got out of Spanish rule, but lowland rulers put themselves in office in the early Classic period.  The Mayans had ruler cults that ruled their civilization, however they did not rule as well as the Mayan kingdoms did.  During the rule of the Mayan ruler cults, the Mayans experienced much warfare, and as a result of the continuous warfare, the ruler cults were abandoned. 

In the Post-Classic period the Toltec Empire ruled the Mayans.  The Toltecs were good rulers because they taught the Mayans many new things that improved their empire and they also adopted the Mayan’s culture.  The Toltecs got rid of the old Mayan order because some native princes were incorporated with the new power structure.  The phase in which the Toltecs took over the Mayans in the Yucatan Peninsula was called the punk phase.  The invading Spaniards soon conquered the Toltec-Mayans.  The Mayans caught smallpox from the invading Spaniards that conquered the Mayans, which weakened the empire greatly.

The Mayan Empire declined in the Post-Classic period for many reasons.  The total Maya system collapsed because of non-ecological, ecological, and long-term economical causes.  Some dangerous ecological causes of the Mayan decline are earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions.  These destroyed the Mayan villages completely leaving nothing. 

Some catastrophic ecological causes that were extremely dangerous are climactic changes and the rapidly spreading epidemic diseases that killed many of the Mayan people.  Some non-ecological causes of the Mayan Empire’s decline are the collapse of trade networks and ideological pathology.  Some long-term economical causes of the decline are degradation of the agricultural landscape through human activity. 

The Mayan Civilization may have collapsed in the Post-Classic period because of peasant revolts, internal warfare, foreign invasions, and disruptions of trade networks.  They also declined as a result of the Spanish conquests that bought internal warfare to the Yucatan Peninsula.  In the Post-Conquest period the Spanish conquerors defeated the Aztecs and then went to the southern Yucatan where they took over the Mayan Empire. 

The Spanish conquerors defeated the Mayans by conquering them, which ended the Mayan rule in the Yucatan Peninsula.  After the Spanish conquered them, the Mayans were completely destroyed and the Spanish conquerors lived on in their new Yucatan home.  However, some Mayan people are still living today, proud remnants of a long lost civilization that was rich in culture, religion, and architecture.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


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