Mary Miller: The Maya Collapsed -- Could We?





Mary Miller is the Sterling Professor of history of art at Yale University and dean of Yale College. She is a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project.

...During the height of their civilization in the 8th century, the Maya recorded dates and deeds at dozens of city-states, from births and battles to the triumphant wrenching of trophies from enemies. Artists inscribed their signatures on painted pots and stone sculptures. Stucco inscriptions adorned monumental pyramids that crested over the rainforest canopy.

But to continue building ever grander structures, the Maya needed resources. Most of all, they needed timber to burn limestone in order to make cement. By the late 8th century, the rainforest was in retreat, fuel was scarce and recurrent drought led to desperation. Eventually, there was chronic warfare as well.

And so one of the most extraordinary civilizations came to a crushing halt. Small groups of desperate dwellers in some cities held out behind hastily thrown-up palisades. Elsewhere, foes burned enemy cities to the ground and smashed monuments, leaving them scattered across the surface to be found in recent times. Scrub jungle overtook what had been sparkling white plazas. Compact ball courts that had seen raucous competition of a team sport played like soccer went silent. Wildlife scavenged lavish furnishings for their nests and dens....




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