It is widely thought that the Maya people were relatively peaceful compared to other civilizations such as the Aztecs, and that the warfare that led to their collapse only kicked in when climate change-related droughts reduced food supplies and escalated tensions existing in the kingdom.
Warfare did exist, but it was considered ritualistic and on a small scale – raids to kidnap a high-profile captive for ransom, sacrifice or to keep rival dynasties in line, for example – rather than deliberate decimation.
A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, however, has revealed evidence that total warfare among the Maya occurred more often and much earlier than thought. The evidence suggests that they used deliberate “scorched-earth” military campaigns – designed to destroy croplands and other vital resources – even during the height of Maya prosperity and sophistication.
"These data really challenge one of the dominant theories of the collapse of the Maya," said lead author David Wahl, of UC Berkeley and the USGS, in a statement. "The findings overturn this idea that warfare really got intense only very late in the game."
During the civilization’s Classic period, which ran from 250 to 950 CE, the Maya thrived. This period is considered the peak of Maya urbanization and construction, where cities that housed up to 120,000 people sprang up, and city-states and kingdoms expanded.
At its height, the empire stretched from the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico to the Sierra Madre mountains, taking in Guatemala, Belize, and western Honduras and El Salvador. During the ninth and 10th centuries CE, however, the empire started to collapse. Known as the Terminal Classic period, cities were abandoned, kingdoms declined, and large swathes of the central Maya regions became empty.
We know that evidence of droughts severely affected agriculture, reducing food supplies and exacerbating conflicts, leading to the violent warfare that at least contributed to the socio-economic collapse of the civilization. Before then, it was thought, large-scale violence and civilian casualties were pretty rare.
But an inch-thick layer of charcoal found in sediment at the bottom of a lake in northern Guatemala suggests otherwise.
The charcoal layer has been dated to 690-700 CE and there is no evidence of drought and natural fires during this time recorded in the lake’s sediment, Wahl said.
However, the layer coincides with the dated evidence of burning, intentional damage and destruction revealed in the remains of the nearby ancient city of Witzna that was being excavated for the first time by another group of researchers. A city seal was discovered that revealed Witzna was once the ancient Maya city of Bahlam Jol.
A reference search for this name threw up the discovery of a war statement on stone stela found in the nearby rival city of Naranjo describing the burning campaign of Bahlam Jol.
The statement translates as: " .. 3 Ben, 16 Kasew ('Sek'), Bahlam Jol 'burned' for the second time." The date on the Mayan calendar is May 21, 697, matching the date of the charcoal layer.
To the researchers' surprise, at least three other cities were proudly described as "burned" on the Naranjo monument, matching up with archaeological records of large-scale fires, followed by a dramatic decline in human activity in the areas, indicating significant negative impacts on the local populations. This, they concluded, suggests that large-scale warfare with the intention to decimate civilian lives didn't only occur during the Terminal Classic period, but happened at least 100 years earlier than thought.
“Burning cities down appears to have been a common tactic much earlier than previously thought,” Wahl told National Geographic, “so I think the idea that the emergence of violent warfare towards the end caused the Maya’s demise really needs reconsideration.”