Cancuen and Research on Mayan Collapse

Most of the 36 continuous large scale, multidisciplinary Vanderbilt University projects have investigated previously unknown regions and have produced PhD dissertations and launched the careers of many, if not most of the leading figures in the field. They have addressed topics regarding the early rise of classic Mayan civilization and since 1989 they have especially addressed the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization, one of the great mysteries of world archaeology. The Vanderbilt investigations though directed by Dr. Demarest, have actually been carried out by experts in many disciplines, from climatology, to soil analysis, to osteology, to isotope analysis, to regional settlement patterns, to the lives of commoners, to the decipherment of many discovered hieroglyphic texts, to neutron activation sourcing of imports and trade patterns, to the health of commoners, the construction and destruction of hundreds of temples, palaces, monuments and major cities down to small villages. Together it constitutes the most complete evidence ever found on the collapse now published by over 50 authors in hundreds of articles, dozens of books and monographs and now absorbed into the major textbooks on the ancient Mayan civilization and on civilizations in general, especially their collapses.

Taken together, the projects of Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology collaborating with US, Guatemalan, French, Mexican, Canadian and British scholars have detailed the specifics of what went on between the late 7th century and the early 9th century that lead to the dramatic unraveling of possibly the New World’s most sophisticated, and only literate civilization. The results of this research have been detailed in the 20 volume Vanderbilt University Press book series, each authored by the leading scholars in their particular sub-fields and are also presented in the current largest, synthetic volume edited by Demarest, Rice & Rice which brought together the data and conclusions of scholars from each sub-region of Guatemala, Chiapas, Honduras, Belize, and Yucatan regarding their evidence and theories on the collapse. This book with 25 chapters and 52 authors has become the ‘bible’ about the classic Mayan collapse used by all scholars. The synthetic results of this are summarized in Professor Demarest’s academic book, The Petexbatun Regional Archaeological Project: A Multidisciplinary Study of the Mayan Collapse. And these are also synthesized in his textbook, Ancient Mayan: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization (Cambridge University Press), which is the most popular text in English and French, in Europe and the US. A new edition of this text is now in prep and is a rather complete revision due for publication in 2016.


In a nutshell, the complex proximate (final and ultimate) root, structural causes of the collapse include many final factors like war, drought, changes in trade route, etc but the underlying deep structural (ultimate) causes have to do with the increasingly archaic nature of the ancient Mayan political system and economy in the face of change across Mexico and Central America to new systems of multiple bases of power and aggressive long distance commodities economy (more similar to our own) that made archaic and non-competitive the political and economic systems of the divine kingships of the classic Mayan cities in the lowland jungles. This research has proven that you cannot view the collapse of civilizations just through the final factors that destroyed them, but rather must look at the deeper factors, in some cases, the very principal strengths, of a civilization to understand what leads it to unravel. In the case of the classic Mayan, this ‘unraveling’ was particularly dramatic involving in some regions the destruction and abandonment cities, the fall of elite dynasties, and virtual depopulation of whole regions of the southern lowland jungle. And many of those regions never recovered, and remained with only small populations of less complex wandering peoples until the last few decades. All of these researches regarding everything from decision-making of leaders to responses to climate change have great relevance for contemporary Western civilization. Many of the structural problems of our civilization today result from these very greater strengths which are now leading us, paradoxically, toward catastrophe. (See Dr. Demarest interview on PBS.)

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