What Doomed the Maya? Maybe Warfare Run Amok

Arthur excavating the famous tomb of the warrior king, Itzamanaaj K’awiil (aka Ruler 2). 1991. Deep within one of the temples of his capitol city, Dos Pilas.



Source: The New York Times

NASHVILLE— After hacking through tropical jungles in Central America and turning up stones of magnificent temples and tombs, archeologists over the years built up in their minds an idealized image of the Maya people who once flourished where now only wilderness thrives.

The Mayas’ civilization was clearly the greatest to flourish in pre-Columbian America. They studied the heavens to devise precise calendars, created a true writing system and built imposing cities, with no evidence of any fortifications. Hence, archeologists assumed, the Mayas were an unusually gentle, peaceful people living in a relatively benign theocracy ruled by sage priest-kings.

But the earlier archeologists apparently got it wrong. In the last few years scholars have made great strides in translating the Mayas’ previously indecipherable writing system. From the emerging texts and from recent excavations has emerged a new, at times bewildering, picture of the Maya civilization at its peak, from A.D. 250 to 900. Great as their cultural and economic achievements manifestly were, they had anything but a peaceful society.

Indeed, the latest feeling among scholars is that the increasing militarism of Maya society may have undermined the ecological underpinnings of the economy. Some of them speculate that siege warfare concentrated population in urban centers, caused desperate farmers to abandon previously successful practices of diversified agriculture and led to overexploitation of the forest.

Dr. Arthur A. Demarest, an archeologist at Vanderbilt University here who directs an ambitious Maya dig in Guatemala, said the evidence from stone art and texts points to the surprising conclusion that “the Maya were one of the most violent state-level societies in the New World, especially after A.D. 600.”

Various writings and artifacts, Dr. Demarest said, indicate continual raiding and warfare between the elites of adjacent city-states and also the practice of ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice. The prestige of ruling dynasties, and hence their power, seemed to depend on their success in battle and the sacrifice of prisoners of war.

Dr. Linda Schele, a Maya scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, writes in this month’s issue of Natural History magazine, “We don’t know if the early Maya went to war mainly to acquire territory, take booty, control conquered groups for labor, take captives for sacrifice in sanctification rituals or a combination of these.”

Whatever the specific goal, archeologists think that for centuries the wars were limited to ritualized conflicts between the elite troops of two rulers. The losing ruler was sometimes decapitated with great ceremony, as depicted in Maya art.

Dr. David Freidel, an archeologist at Southern Methodist University, surmises that Maya conflicts functioned to maintain a balance of power between city-states of roughly equal strength. He has called this a system of “peace through war.”

But recent excavations by Dr. Demarest’s team at the ancient city of Dos Pilas, in northern Guatemala, have revealed the remains of extensive fortifications seemingly erected in haste and other evidence that the character and scope of Maya warfare began to change in the seventh or eighth century. These signs of siege warfare, Dr. Demarest said, indicate an escalation of militarism involving the general population in a desperate fight for survival.


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Source: The New York Times

Published: November 19, 1991



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