The Abandonment of Lowland Maya Urban Centres

The Abandonment of Lowland Maya Urban Centres

There were more than 60 Maya “kingdoms”,which often competed for dominance and control of the lucrative commodity exchange routes,that provided essential natural resources.A new ruler could prove his status by capturing important personages from nearby centres.This provided tribute,ransom,slaves and trade oppurtunities.There was usually at least one ruler scheming to enhance his power base.The Maya were never united under a single ruler.The Maya were socially and ethically diverse.Maya rivalry was more frequent,when droughts and natural disasters contributed to food shortages.Although the Maya were not always at war,the threat of attack was a constant concern.

The abandonment of large,lowland,Maya,urban centres was not restricted to the 800-900 ADE period.Nakbe was an early Maya settlement.An expanding populace erected plazas,platforms and pyramids ca 700-400 ADE.Ca 300 BCE nearby El Mirador became more prominent.It had one of the largest concentrations of Maya monuments.and its population may have exceeded tens of thousands.Ca 200-250 ADE rainfall began to decline,forests became depleted,soil erosion was rampant,swampland began to infill and gradually dried out.The area of arable land could no longer support the growing populaceand other areas rapidly assumed El Miradors mantle of power.This was a recurrent scenario in Maya history [D Drew,1994].Hundreds of blood stained spear tips and arrow heads were recovered from the summit of the El Tigre monument at El Mirador.About 200 of these weapons were shaped from obsidian,which was sourced from the distal Mexican highlands.Graffti on the El  Tigre stone work depicts,Tialoc,the Mexican high war god.Whether Tectihuacan warriors were directly involved in this military engagement is a moot point [R Hanson,2009].The Ilapango volcano in central El Salvador erupted ca 250 ADE and caused considerable damage.It disrupted trade links and the influence of the highlands waned relative to the lowland urban centres.Within Maya domains shifts in the balance of power were not uncommon [D Drew,1999].

The prosperous era prior to ca 760 stimulated population growth.The  subsequent pressures that contributed to the abandonment of many lowland Maya communities varied locally and regionallyLacustrine sediment cores from Chichancanab on the north Yucatan peninsula [D Howell,nd] and titanium analysis of continuous 170m cores from the offshore Carico Basi[an anoxic sediment trap],Venezeula,revealed that there were 3-9 droughts during the 760,810,860 and 910 ADE eras.There was minimal rainfall to fill the  numerous,large Maya water reservoirs,fluvial flow rates diminished,and natural underground aquifers could only be accessed in the northern lowlands [L Pederson,2006]. These results compare withtitanium mineral level determinations for sediments by Lake Hugana Moar in SW China,which recorded an abnormal  dry period from ca 700-900 ADE [Mhopkins,2007].

Progressive deforestration,related soil erosion and more frequent,longer droughts reduced food production in some more densely populated centres.When a settlement was abandoned,an influx of refugees to a nearby town,could reduce its capacity to survive. Commodity exchange net works were disrupted,when a settlement was deserted,which adversely affected regional stability [D Drew,1999].The violent destruction of Tectihuacan society deprived Mesoamerica of  a major stabilizing influence and disrupted trade networks.When new exchange links were forged ,a number of Maya communities were unable to compensate for the loss of vital commercial contacts and access to natural resources.This severely restricted economic growth..As an urban centre’s power waned, its subsidiary communities became more independent and did not pay  tribute.This placed pressure on fragile economies [R Sharer,1994].

Tikal was occupied pre-700 BCE [M Ponce de Leon,2003].Ca 379 ADE a new royal lineage was established in Tikal,which appears to have had some association with Teotihuacan in central Mexico.Tectihuacan probably became involved briefly in Maya domestic affairs to gain a specific economic advantage.Other Mexican societies may also have adopted this policy.Such intrusions could have upset the balance of power in some Maya lands,[D Drew,1999].Tikal gained prominence and was defeated in battle ca 562 ADE.Its fortunes were rejuvenated ca 695 ADE,until its demise ca 889ADE.Analysisof human remains indicated that the late,unhealthy residents of Tikal were stressed,which can contribute to disease [ibid].The case history of Tikal is not unique in Maya history.

Excavations at Cancuen,downstream from rapids on the Rio Parson,provides information about the complexities of the disintegration of some Maya societies.It was a flourishing trade centre from ca 300-800 ADE.Demarest [2005] describes the massacre ca 830 ADE of elite individuals,who were disposed of with their fine,personal ornaments intact.These people were aware of the danger.Restoration construction was abandoned,while wood and stone palisades were erected to protect strategic locations in the palace complex.Cancuen is an enigma.Maya invaders usually held captives for ransom, demanded tribute from the vanquished and seized booty,[ibid].The above could infer an uprising by the masses against opulent overlords.Food shortages can incite violence.The slaughter of rhe Cancuen elite and merchant class may have provided the upstream highlanders with control over the vital trade networks.They might have provided assistance to the masses [speculation].

Copan,near the Guatemala border,was located between the highlands and lowlands at 600m ASL.Its gradual abandonment follows a different pattern from Cancuen.Proximal arable land was limited.As the populace expanded to an estimated 20,000 people ca 800ADE,houses were built on fertile land and the farmers were forced to denude the valley slopes of trees and cultivate poorer soil. Ca 738 ADE the Copan ruler was beheaded by Cauac Sky from a satellite at Quirigua.He usurped  many Copan trade links and no longer made tribute payments.These losses weakened the Copan economy.The last Copan ruler died ca 821 ADE.By ca 925 ADE  Copan had only 5000 inhabitants.The departure of a significant portion of the population eased pressure on finite resources and prolonged the existence of the community,which was abandoned ca 1200ADE [W Fash,1991].Storey advised that human remains from ca 800 ADE suffered from malnutrition and disease.

A number of lowland Maya settlements,with abundant marine resources.survived for centuries after many Maya communities had disintegrated.Lamanai is located on a lagoon on the upper New River reaches of northern Belize.Residents expanded their riverine and coastal trade networks to include a large segment of the Yukatan peninsula and remained prosperous until ca 1450 ADE [D Pendergast,nd].Many Maya refugees from the southern lowlands moved to the Yakatyan peninsula ca 850-900ADE.Putan perpetuated the progressive elements of Maya culture for another 350years,[R Sharer,1994].Their descendants still reside in Mesoamerica and parts of Mexico.

There were periods of prosperity in Maya lands,when progress was made in a relatively peaceful environment.They invented zero prior to its introduction to Eurasia,calculated the length of  the year more accurately than any country prior to the modern era, built structures that could withstand moderate seismic activity,made mortar superior to many extant products,and were good horticulturalists.



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