The Mysterious: The “Lost” Maya

          This month’s mystery is a historical mystery with a dash of archaeology. We’ll be discussing what happened to the great Mayan civilization. More importantly, why do all of the impressive, expansive cities found within the Mayan Empire seem abandoned. And why, frustratingly, do people consider the Mayan Civilization lost?

Who Were the Maya?

          We’re going to do a quick gloss over of the Mayan Civilization so we all have the groundwork going into this mystery. The Mayan Civilization was a culture centered in Mesoamerica. They were an accomplished culture with a written language, bountiful mythology, complicated system for timekeeping, and way more. There have been many, many books written about the Mayan Civilization, but suffice it to say that they flourished. They recorded their history, had a vast culture of art, and were adept farmers. The Mayan Civilization flourished from as early as 2000 BC and extended to 900 AD, which is the end of the Classic Period. This is not the end of the Mayan Civilization, but it is the point at which the civilization “mysteriously” declined.

(A map of the Maya Empire.
via Scholastic)

Lots of Theories

          There have been so many theories bandied about in discussions of what happened to the Mayan Civilization, most of them alluring in their grandiosity and their mysticism. Let’s tackle these theories in two groups – the first group of theories are ones that absolutely did not happen. The first is that the Mayan Civilization was plagued by mass disappearances. These are insinuated to be supernatural in nature, and the reason why so many of their advanced cities were seemingly abandoned. And that leads us into our next theory – that extraterrestrial beings had something to do with the mass “disappearances.” Now the general gist of these theories is that the Mayan Civilization was decimated by mass alien abduction. Why? Well, I couldn’t really find a coherent explanation of why that would happen. So that’s that. (Yeah, this totally did not happen.) 
          Now onto the theories that seem plausible, or perhaps are factors that played into the migration patterns that led the Mayan peoples away from their population centers. The first is that some sort of communicable disease spread through the densely populated areas of the Civilization, killing off much of the population. While this theory is definitely more plausible than aliens, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence to back it up. There is, however, some very sound conjecture, and similar collapses have been seen in other societies. The second theory in this group is that the Mayan Civilization was disassembled due to political infighting and war. This, again, is possible but there are no documented revolts or other uprisings that would point to this theory.

Latest Theory

          The latest theory to come from the quest for answers as to what happened to the Mayan Civilization is a little less exciting and magical than ones that have been posited in the past, but it also is the most plausible one so far. The latest theory is that climate change forced the Mayan Civilization from their once bountiful land, leading to the abandoned cities explorers have found and marveled over for hundreds of years. The gist of this theory is that several environmental factors led the Mayan people to leave their largest cities – which were often seen as “abandoned” by white explorers who then stumbled upon the unoccupied cities. Wood was high in demand among the Maya, and this demand led to fairly severe deforestation of the land. As the trees were felled, the rainfall patterns were affected. In turn, their farms and water sources were affected. As these effects became harder and harder to tolerate, the Mayan people migrated to places with more favorable environments – most historians agree that they likely migrated to the coasts of Mesoamerica.
          And, to be perfectly blunt, calling the Maya “lost” is incredibly ignorant. Mayan people still exist and their movements can be tracked. Just because their cities were seemingly abandoned doesn’t mean the entire civilization crumbled. The Maya are not lost. The Maya adapted as their surroundings changed. Calling them lost is demeaning and diminishes their history.
          The biggest takeaway here is that Occam’s Razor is a principle for a reason. We all, as humans, are drawn to more out-there theories. It’s human nature to be more interested in the ideas that set our imaginations running. The closer things hit to home, the less inclined we are to jump to it as the first conclusion. In the case of the “Lost” Maya, people tend to want to talk about more magical theories like mass disappearances, aliens, apocalypse, wars, and genocide because those things feel far-off. Like they can’t happen to us. Things like climate change are too  real to consider. However, because it’s too real, maybe we should put that theory at the top of the list of possibilities. Just my two cents.


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