Theories regarding what caused the Classic Maya collapse have varied from overcrowding to persistent military strife between rival city-states to a catastrophic environmental disaster, such as a severe drought – or any combination of all of these elements.
The first theory regarding the cause of the Classic Maya collapse was proposed by the French scholar Jacques de Morgane in 1772. He argued that the decline and fall of the Maya were due to ecological devastation caused by excessive population growth and deforestation. Morgane's work was widely read in its time and influenced many writers including Edward Gibbon and Charles Darwin. In 1877 the American historian John L. Stephens published an article arguing that the Classic Maya collapse was due to overcrowding. Stephens' argument was based on evidence gathered by himself and his wife while traveling through Central America at the end of the nineteenth century. They reported seeing large cities that lacked defensive walls and appeared relatively empty when compared with later studies of their inscriptions.
In 1956 the American archaeologist Arthur P. Kelly presented evidence against the theory that the Classic Maya collapsed due to ecological destruction. Kelly argued that although deforestation did occur it was not significant enough to account for the total loss of forest cover within the area. He also noted that there is no evidence of widespread famine during this time. In contrast, other researchers have suggested that the environment may have played a role in the demise of the Classic Maya. In 1975 David S.
Maya historians have largely agreed that the Maya collapse was caused by a mixture of three major factors: fighting between city-states, overpopulation, and drought. The elements were not always current or concentrated in a single city. But when they combined their effect was devastating.
The first factor was internal conflict. Large cities such as Tikal and Palenque were divided into ethnic groups called ch'ank', which may be translated as "those who speak a different language". These divisions were usually based on language, but sometimes also religion (the Ch'ank' could be Catholic or Protestant). Although this practice seemed reasonable at the time it was adopted, in the long run it was very damaging because it prevented leaders from uniting their cities against a common enemy or promoting peace talks with rivals.
The second factor was overpopulation. Large cities like Tikal had huge populations, up to 70,000 people inside its boundaries today. This is more than many small towns in the United States. At such a rate of growth there would not be enough food for everyone, and this led to violence over land rights and resource competition.
The third factor was drought. From about 600 to 800 AD, several years without any recorded rainfall caused widespread famine across the region. The population of many large cities may have dropped by as much as 90 percent during these times.
Overpopulation, environmental deterioration, conflict, shifting trade routes, and prolonged drought have all been proposed as possible causes of the Maya civilization's demise in the southern lowlands. The collapse was most likely caused by a complicated mix of circumstances.
All three of these factors—overpopulation and exploitation of the land, chronic conflict, and drought—could have contributed to the Maya's demise in the southern lowlands. However, there are other factors that may have been involved as well.
The Maya developed a complex system of writing but used it only for recording important events (such as births, deaths, and conquests) instead of using it as a tool for economic development or storing knowledge.
They also had a highly structured society with an aristocracy who lived in large cities. The average Mayan didn't live much longer than his or her counterpart today; however, because of the hierarchical structure of their society, the rich and powerful often lived longer than ordinary people.
Finally, the Maya depended heavily on agriculture for their survival. When the main sources of water disappeared under flooding or desertification, they had no choice but to move away from their traditional lands. Although they might have survived in smaller groups outside the city limits, this would have prevented them from maintaining their culture over time.
In conclusion, the Maya were not strong enough to defeat Spain alone; however, they could have held out for quite some time if they weren't forced to abandon their cities.
"Archeologists used to debate whether the Maya's demise was caused by famine, conflict, sickness, or any number of other theories such as political instability," Sever explains. The main reason was a persistent food and water deficit caused by a mix of natural drought and anthropogenic deforestation. "Without enough food, people can't build up muscle mass" which requires more energy, so they start eating their horses and themselves. Also there is evidence that some cities were burned down.
Many things might have contributed to the Mayas' demise. According to one interpretation, the "Classic Maya Age" came to an end due of greater fighting. Another argument is that the region had a prolonged dry spell and drought. This would have resulted in a food and water deficit. People would have migrated away from their traditional lands in search of food and shelter.
The same thing happened to the Aztecs. They too experienced a food shortage around 1450. This forced the people to move away from their traditional lands. In fact, the Spanish historians reported that when they arrived in Mexico City there were no more signs of an advanced civilization. All the pyramids were gone and so was the knowledge about pyramid building. The Aztecs had simply disappeared.
In Peru, the Incas also declined after their capital city was destroyed by fire. There are different theories on how this disaster occurred. Some say it was caused by the warring between the Aymaras and the Quechuas. However, others believe it was done intentionally by the Incas as a means of cleansing their world of evil spirits.
After this tragedy, the Incas were only left with their small kingdom in Cuzco. Because there were no longer any leaders capable of maintaining order, the other tribes began attacking each other in search of resources. By 1572, all the major kingdoms in Peru had been defeated and lost forever.