The Disappearance of the Maya

By around A.D. 900, the Mayan civilization was in steep decline. New building stopped and the pyramids and ball courts were gradually abandoned to the jungle. Around this time the lowland population dropped by around 90 percent. There has been a lot of debate about what caused the collapse of the classic-era Mayan culture. Some suggest the burdens of ritual warfare between city-states became too much or that a great epidemic decimated the population.

The most likely explanation is that the Mayan system of agriculture, which relied upon a system of clearing rain forest and burning the vegetation to enrich the soil, broke down under the weight of their population. As soon as they surpassed a critical mass, the fields couldn't be left fallow long enough for them to return to fertility. This led to a downward spiral; fields were overworked and the carrying capacity of the Mayan system of growing corn simply collapsed.

The lesson of the classic-era Maya's demise could be interpreted as a very stark reminder that civilizations that use vital resources at an unsustainable rate face the same fundamental issues. However great the architecture, learning, or history of a people, if there is no food, everything comes to a grinding halt and the balance of nature returns.

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