By the early 8th century the Maya civilization was at its zenith.
Building and maintaining cities of such scale that
future explorers hypothesized that they must have been built
by lost tribes of Israel or the Phoenicians.
But only 150 years later the flourishing Classic Maya civilization had crumbled,
undergoing one of the most devastating social and demographic upheavals in human history.
Yet the Maya wouldn’t succumb to Spanish control until 1697,
nearly 200 years after the Aztecs and Inca.
The great collapse and fall of the Maya is a story
of change, triumph and tragedy,
where ancient thrones will be shattered but from them new powers will emerge.
There is no disputing that the Maya civilization in the southern lowlands underwent some sort of collapse.
The prevailing question is, why?
Unfortunately, we do not have any records of the collapse from the Maya themselves.
The stelae that we rely upon usually focus on the lives of god-kings
rather than agricultural yields
and the books that may have contained these records have been reduced to ash.
What we do know is that in the 8th and 9th centuries
alliances began breaking down, trade declined
and intense conflicts spiraled out of control.
The greatest example of this is the Tikal-Calakmul wars
we saw in the previous video.
By 830 AD the large-scale constructions that we associate with the Maya had mostly stopped
and at Itzimte we see the final date carved on a stela
the 16th of January 910,
which marked that one of humanities brightest lights,
the Classic urban civilization of the Maya was at an end.
Similar to the fall of Rome or the Hittites,
we know that there is more than one single reason for the collapse.
Most Mayanists agree that 3 major factors
led to the Classic Maya collapse:
Warfare, Environmental Collapse, and Drought.
We’ll start with warfare first
because it seems to have the earliest arriving cause.
As these increasingly frequent wars continued to plague the southern lowlands
the level of violence and destruction they brought increased.
The Maya kings had been warring since the pre-Classic period,
but things had escalated
and warfare was now interrupting the daily lives of the common people.
The gorgeous temples and palaces that once glorified Maya cities were turned to rubble.
Some even torn down in order to build fortifications,
which began to spring up around once un-walled Maya cities.
Some cities even had defensive walls that passed right through the middle of them.
Settlements began to regress,
pyramids lay unfinished,
and kings unburied.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into the cities from the countryside,
swelling their populations.
Tikal which had a population between 60-80 thousand for most of its history
may have skyrocketed to 200,000 during this period.
This was compounded by environmental issues.
As we discussed in the first video in this series
the Yucatán is quite a hostile environment
and the Maya needed to develop ingenious and costly methods to thrive within it.
In order to fuel their ever-growing cities
and to make the plaster that covered them
massive swaths of forest had to be cleared.
This deforestation increased soil erosion in an environment
in which soils were already quite thin.
The success of the Maya city-states was sowing the seeds of their destruction.
The final fatal factor, was drought.
The Maya were one of the most adept civilizations when it came to drought management.
Their aqueducts and cisterns still dotted the jungles that have consumed their cities.
However, the sheer length of the droughts
that struck them between 800 and 1100 AD was apocalyptic.
There was a 40-year drought between 820-860,
another around 930,
and then from 1000 – 1100 there was another,
a 100-year long drought.
The area was already suffering from incessant warfare.
Soils were less productive than ever.
Kings were embroiled in century long rivalries
and now farmers had to plant seeds of corn into the dry dirt year after year,
only to see nothing sprout.
All that was left to do was curse the gods
or the person who was supposed to maintain their favour,
which in Maya culture was the king!
Now that the Maya kings had failed to please the gods and bring down the rains
the people may have risen up against them.
Bloody revolutions could have been the tragic final act for these cities
and the position of divine Kingship in Maya society dwindled or was cut away.
Any of these factors individually could probably have been easily overcome by the Maya.
The destruction from endless wars could have been healed,
drought could be managed,
new farming methods can be developed
and new political systems implemented.
But all of these together spelled disaster.
Complex and compounding factors are what brought it about.
But what happened to the survivors of this collapse?
Not everyone died,
the southern lowlands had a population in the millions.
It is a great mystery of archaeology
but we do have some records of them migrating north.
During this period, the Terminal Classic,
the northern cities such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal began to soar.
So, while the southern lowlands ceased to create monuments or house giant cities
the northern lowlands actually flourished.
The Maya did not disappear after their collapse
which is an extremely popular misconception
rather their civilization underwent a massive shift.
Chichen Itza rose to become a major regional power.
By adapting to the political changes brought about by the collapse.
By abandoning god-kings and replacing them with ruling councils
and by dominating the trades routes in the region, especially salt,
it became the political center of the northern lowlands from the 10th to the 13th century.
They built famous structures like El Castillo
which during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes,
creates an awe-inspiring effect of a serpent wriggling down its staircase.
Mayapan took over the title of regional power
after Chichen Itza declined in the 11th century.
But it itself would be abandoned in 1448
for reasons similar to the collapse earlier.
This period saw a series of natural disasters
and increased warfare that would only end around 1511.
at which point the Spanish arrived.
This is the beginning of the end for independent Maya civilization.
To understand this conflict,
we need to understand what the Spanish brought.
First, were diseases previously unknown on the continent.
Smallpox, influenza, and measles wreaked havoc on native populations
in what is probably the most unparalleled destruction of life in human history.
Within a hundred years 90% of the native population was gone.
While the Maya were the first of the Mesoamerican civilizations to have contact with the Spanish
they were spared for a few years,
as the gold-rich Aztecs in Mexico drew their attention instead.
The Spanish conquest of the Maya only truly began in 1528,
spearheaded by Pedro de Alvarado and his brothers,
veterans of the conquest of the Aztecs.
Taking down the Maya would not be a short affair.
Unlike the Aztecs or Inca,
the Maya did not have a central authority that could be kidnapped.
The Maya themselves also fought in a different fashion to the Aztecs.
They attacked Spanish camps at night,
lay traps for them in the jungle,
and deployed rapid hit and run tactics.
The fighting in those jungles was unlike anything the Spanish had dealt with before.
Smallpox had reached some parts of the Maya area
even before the conquistadors began their invasion.
When the Alvarado brothers entered those jungles and cities
they were walking through an already post-apocalyptic landscape,
as the germs had initiated a deadly blitzkrieg assault before they could.
Resistance was still fierce however.
It wasn’t until 1542 that the Spaniards could even establish a capital in the region, Mérida.
The Spanish had to invade and conquer each Maya city or group separately.
When they finally established control over one region
as soon as they moved to the next it would rebel.
As the conquistadors underwent their incredible conquest
they were accompanied by thousands of natives from both Mexico and the Maya area,
some of them already veterans from previous conquests.
Certain powerful Maya families, rulers, and cities saw the short-term benefit
that siding with the Spanish could bring.
We have a cloth painting from the era,
showing these allies assisting conquistador Jorge de Alvarado
in his campaign of 1527 to 1529.
In 1541 the Maya were granted a brief respite
when Pedro de Alvarado died,
but the most powerful Maya kingdoms
such as the K’iche and Kaqchikel were also at an end.
Without them a large-scale resistance would be impossible
and the chance of a unified Maya resistance to the conquistadors was gone.
The final holdout against the Spanish was the city of Nojpetén,
which was controlled by the Itza people.
It was located in the middle of a lake in Northern Guatemala
and surrounded by defensive walls.
This city wouldn’t be taken until 1697
when Martín de Urzúa assaulted the city
with a large attack boat outfitted with cannon and mortars.
The population of the city attempted a last stand.
They swarmed the boat with canoes but were
beaten back and shot in the water as they tried to swim away.
The city was bombarded and taken on the 10th of March 1697.
But the resistance never truly halted for the Maya.
Rebellions by the Yucatec Maya in 1847 and 1860
came close to retaking the entire Yucatan.
In 1910 came another rebellion against the dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz
and the Zapatista National Liberation Army has challenged the Mexican authorities
since the initial uprising of 1994.
Today there are 7 million Maya living in Guatemala,
southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize,
El Salvador, and western Honduras.
Some have integrated into the Hispanic Mestizo culture
while others continue to live a more traditional life,
still speaking one of the over 30 Mayan languages
and counting the passing days on ancient calendars.
The Maya are an odd example of a civilization.
In that they have been a part of human history for an incredibly long time.
They have risen and fallen and risen and fallen a number of times.
They have been invaded by foreign powers
and dealt with apocalyptic disease
yet they still have never truly been conquered
as their culture and spirit has seemingly continued unbroken until this day.
Thank you for watching the last episode in our series on the Maya.
We will soon conclude our series on the pre-Columbian America and move on to other regions,
so make sure you are subscribed to our channel.
We would like to express our gratitude to our Patreon supporters,
who make the creation of our videos possible.
Now, you can also support us
by buying our merchandise via the link in the description.
This is the Kings and Generals channel
and we will catch you on the next one.