The Mayan civilization was once one of the most advanced societies on Earth. The Maya developed a written language far before any other cultures in North America, and were known to have sophisticated mathematical, astronomical and calendar systems - and even their own “super highways” stretching through the jungle. Like many pre-colonial North American societies, however, the Mayan civilization was finally driven into destruction by the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mayan ruins at El Ceibal, where this study was conducted.

Because Mayan society collapsed so quickly, much knowledge about this advanced civilization was lost. Today, Mayan ruins are sources of enduring mystery, and each discovery has the potential to re-write our knowledge of Mayan history. Case in point: a team of University of Arizona researchers has conducted a large-scale radiocarbon dating project that might have solved the mystery of the chronology of the Mayan collapse.

Researchers from the University of Arizona have been excavating Ceibal for over a decade.

The researchers, led by University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata, used 154 separate radiocarbon dates from the Mayan ruins of El Ceibal in Guatemala in an attempt to piece together the trajectory of the Mayan downfall. There were already two known periods of decline in Mayan history, the Preclassic and the Classic, generally thought of as sudden periods of collapse. However, Inomata and his colleagues have found that their new archaeological evidence points to a more drawn out, complex collapse than previous theories:

What we found out is that those two cases of collapse (Classic and Preclassic) follow similar patterns. It's not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse. First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.

The new evidence has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While the Spanish conquest of Mayan civilization is well-known, the cause for the abandonment of Mayan cities some five or six hundred years before the Conquistadors' arrival is still a mystery. This new study could show that rather than the sudden, cataclysmic end generally thought of, the decline of Mayan civilization could have been much more gradual.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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