Excavations of the collapsed facade of the royal palace of Ceibal, which was burned during the Classic Maya collapse.

Archaeologists have developed a highly-refined chronology for the two major Maya collapses using the largest set of radiocarbon dates ever obtained from a single site.

The circumstances behind the Preclassic (2nd century AD) and Classic Maya (9th century AD) collapses – two periods of widespread urban abandonment across Mesoamerica – have long been the subject of debate. But now, a study led by Takeshi Inomata (University of Arizona) has consolidated an unprecedented 154 radiocarbon dates from Ceibal in Guatemala, placing them alongside contemporary archaeological evidence from over a decade of research at the site to identify patterns of Maya crisis.

In contrast to other theories arguing that the Maya collapses occurred gradually, Inomata and his colleagues suggest that both periods had similar, more rapid trajectories: waves of smaller instability tied to warfare and political strife followed by a major collapse – the abandonment of key centres – and then a period of brief recovery in some areas before another collapse.

The more precise chronology is an important step towards understanding Maya social breakdowns, and it offers a potential template for other large-scale ancient collapses elsewhere.

Archaeologists searching for evidence of crisis in Ceibal’s royal palace.

 

TEXT: Nicholas Bartos

IMAGES: Takeshi Inomata, University of Arizona

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