The ancient Mayas of Central America built one of the most highly developed native civilizations ever found in the Western Hemisphere. In art, agriculture, and mathematics they equalled or outdid all of their counterparts. And for nearly seven centuries (250-900 A.D.) they controlled the area of Central America now known as Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador, and the entire Yucatan Peninsula.
Then suddenly the entire Mayan civilization collapsed. Hundreds of splendid temple-topped stone pyramids, many of which were nearly 200 feet high, fell into disrepair. Beautiful cities like Palenque, the buildings of which once covered nearly 17 square miles, were quickly overgrown by the jungle.
The whole process took less than 100 years. This is no time at all if you consider that the Mayan civilization had been around for 1000 years before reaching its peak between 250 and 900. Yet to this day, no one is really certain how or why this decline happened. I read
a book from Richard Halliburton – a famous German traveller and explorer who studied this civilization of ancient Mayas. According to his researches he found out that Mayas were very progressing. While Europe was still struggling through the Dark Ages, the Mayas were using a calendar that was more accurate than the one we use today. Mayan astronomers were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses, and they had calculated the path of Venus so precisely that their error was only 1 day in 6000 years! The Mayans were using the concept of zero in their numbering system several hundred years before it was introduced in the Old World.
So how could such an advanced civilization fall so far so fast? Many explanations have been offered, including earthquakes and disease. Even the possibility that an invasion was responsible for the fall has not yet been ruled out. But many scholars feel that the answer may have more to do with the internal structure of Mayan society than with some natural disaster or outside force.
The cultural elite of Mayan civilization were the priests, astronomers, chiefs, and other members of the aristocracy. Comparatively small in number, they were supported by the labour of large masses of peasants. It is thought that the peasants may have rebelled because they were overtaxed and that they overcame their rulers through sheer weight of numbers. However, since the rulers alone knew how to read and write and how to plan and repair buildings, this and other cultural knowledge vanished with them, causing the civilization´s rapid collapse. That, at least, is one theory.
Unless we discover some way to turn back the clock, we may never know the whole story. But as investigations continue, we will certainly learn more about these remarkable people – the magnificent Mayas.