Mayans disappeared

Explaining the Mystery of the Vanished Maya
November 12, 2014 – 02:13 pm
1. We start with our object

Main plaza of Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala (Image Credit: weisserstier [Flickr])

Jaguar Temple in Tikal (Image Credit: erushing [Flickr])

Mayan ruins at Calakmul, Mexico (Image Credit: von Kinder [Flickr])

We tend to think of the Dark Ages as a bleak time when King Arthur was caught in the grip of lusty princesses and clashing knights. But while Europeans were busy eating giant turkey legs and trying to act interested in converting pagans to Christianity, a great culture was flourishing in Southern Mexico and northern Central America. Between 200 B.C.E. and 900 C.E., the Mayan civilization was anything but dark. Kings and queens rules over a huge empire of cities, palaces, and temples adorned with fine art and steeped in gold and gems.

Its people were highly advanced, mastering disciplines as varied as astronomy, engineering, architecture, and urban planning.

Today, however, these once-great Mayan cities lie hidden under dense rainforest. To the average American, how this happened is a mystery. We say the Maya “disappeared” and blame it on alien invaders. But the Maya aren’t gone. Millions of them still live in Guatemala and Honduras, and thousands more come to the United States to eke out livings as migrant laborers. It didn’t take a supernatural force to put their civilization into decline, either. In fact, archaeologists now blame the fall of the Maya on deceptively simple flaws that could topple any culture - even ours.


These days, so few people live in the region once dominated by the Mayan empire that researchers believed there weren’t a lot of Maya living there in the past, either. But the landscape is deceptive. Decades of research reveal that the Maya had completely transformed the land on which they lived by turning jungles into a vast area of plains filled with cities, farms, and an ever-growing population. In fact, settlements around centers like Tikal reached population densities of up to 2, 600 people per square mile. That’s more than half the population density of modern-day New York City.

The ancient ruins of Tikal, as captured by the IKONOS satellite
(Image: Space Imaging, Inc.)

Archaeologists have even found evidence of a kind of Mayan urban sprawl. In the spans between large cities, they’ve uncovered thousands of house foundations connected by what were paved roads. Even more spectacular, recent satellite imagery from NASA shows that may areas where the Maya used limestone plaster as floor and wall coverings can still be seen in the colors of the rainforest trees.

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