Nav: Home

Archaeologists uncover new clues to Maya collapse

January 23, 2017

Using the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single Maya site, archaeologists have developed a high-precision chronology that sheds new light on patterns leading up to the two major collapses of the ancient civilization.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over what caused what is known as the Classic Maya collapse in the ninth century A.D., when many of the ancient civilization's cities were abandoned. More recent investigations have revealed that the Maya also experienced an earlier collapse in the second century A.D. -- now called the Preclassic collapse -- that is even more poorly understood.

University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata and his colleagues suggest in a new paper, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that both collapses followed similar trajectories, with multiple waves of social instability, warfare and political crises leading to the rapid fall of many city centers.

The findings are based on a highly refined chronology developed by Inomata and his colleagues using an unprecedented 154 radiocarbon dates from the archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala, where the team has worked for over a decade.

While more general chronologies might suggest that the Maya collapses occurred gradually, this new, more precise chronology indicates more complex patterns of political crises and recoveries leading up to each collapse.

"What we found out is that those two cases of collapse (Classic and Preclassic) follow similar patterns," said Inomata, the paper's lead author and a professor in the School of Anthropology in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "It's not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse. First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse."

Using radiocarbon dating and data from ceramics and highly controlled archaeological excavations, the researchers were able to establish the refined chronology of when population sizes and building construction increased and decreased at Ceibal.

While the findings may not solve the mystery of why exactly the Maya collapses occurred, they are an important step toward better understanding how they unfolded.

"It's really, really interesting that these collapses both look very similar, at very different time periods," said Melissa Burham, one of three UA anthropology graduate students who co-authored the paper. "We now have a good understanding of what the process looked like, that potentially can serve as a template for other people to try to see if they have a similar pattern at their (archaeological) sites in the same area."

Inomata and his UA colleagues -- anthropology professor Daniela Triadan and students Burham, Jessica MacLellan and Juan Manuel Palomo -- worked with collaborators at Ibaraki University, Naruto University of Education and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan, and with Guatemalan archaeologists and students.

Radiocarbon dating was done at Paleo Laboratory Company in Japan and at the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in the UA Department of Physics.

"Radiocarbon dating has been used for a long time, but now we're getting to an interesting period because it's getting more and more precise," said Inomata, who also is an Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice at the UA. "We're getting to the point where we can get to the interesting social patterns because the chronology is refined enough, and the dating is precise enough."
-end-
Inomata's research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Geographic Foundation, the Alphawood Foundation and the UA's Agnes Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.

University of Arizona

Related Anthropology Articles:

AAA extends partnership with Wiley
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) today renewed its publishing agreement with Wiley, continuing a decade long partnership.
Boosting communication is key in managing menopause
A University of Delaware student and faculty member have reviewed previous studies about how women manage menopause symptoms and found that they frequently use alternative treatments.
Walker receives Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award
Alan Walker, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Biology was awarded the Charles R.
The taming of the rat
If you worry about having a pet rat in case it bites you, then you can relax.
OU center examines how genomic information impacts medical care of Native Americans
A University of Oklahoma Center on American Indian and Alaska Native Genomic Research will examine the impact of genomic information on American Indian and Alaska Native communities and health care systems.
Nature vs. nurture? Both are important, anthropologist argues
Evolutionary science stresses the contributions biology makes to our behavior.
Production of butter from shea trees in West Africa pushed back 1,000 years
University of Oregon anthropologists have pushed back the history of harvesting shea trees in West Africa by more than 1,000 years earlier than previously believed.
Research reveals connections between social science and high fashion
The presentation will be featured this month at the world's largest gathering of anthropologists.
Emotionally supportive relationships linked to lower testosterone
Science and folklore alike have long suggested that high levels of testosterone can facilitate the sorts of attitudes and behavior that make for, well, a less than ideal male parent.
The challenges for anthropologists when they're the expert in the courtroom
A national presentation and discussion will examine the intellectual, practical and ethical challenges for anthropologists when they're hired to serve as expert witnesses.

Related Anthropology Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Jumpstarting Creativity
Our greatest breakthroughs and triumphs have one thing in common: creativity. But how do you ignite it? And how do you rekindle it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on jumpstarting creativity. Guests include economist Tim Harford, producer Helen Marriage, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Engels, and behavioral scientist Marily Oppezzo.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".