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Ancient Civilizations: The Maya Empire Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020

When the Society Existed

The Maya Empire was extremely influential during the 6th century A.D. A majority of the prosperous stone cities were discarded by A.D. 900. The nineteenth century scholars made extra efforts to assess the causes of the dramatic decline. The Maya Empire was exceptionally prominent during its period.


The Maya Empire was located in the present Guatemala’s tropical lowlands. The empire was recognized as one of the exceptionally indigenous Mesoamerica societies. The term Mesoamerica was used to refer to Central America and Mexico before the Spanish overthrow in the sixteenth century.

Other native Mesoamerica populations were scattered. However, the Maya were based at a single geographical block that covered the entire Yucatan Peninsula, current Guatemala, parts of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico, Belize, and the western El Salvador and Honduras (Thompson, 1973). It is worth noting that this concentration was extremely imperative in keeping Maya secure. This prevented invasion from other Mesoamerican communities.

Considering this expanse, the Maya civilization resided in three independent sub- regions, which had varying cultural and environmental variations. The sub- areas were;

  • The southern plains in the northern Guatemala’s Peten region and the neighboring Mexico regions, western Honduras, and Belize.
  • The northern Yucatan Peninsula’s Maya plains.
  • The Maya uplands in the southern region, which were found in southern Guatemala’s hilly area.

The Maya in the southern plain region reached the climax of influence in A.D. 250 to 900, which was referred to as the Maya Empire’s Classic Period. The Maya Empire constructed impressive monuments and stone cities, which were a great source of fascination to scholars and explorers.


The empire reached the climax of its influence and power during the 6th century A.D. The Maya empire was extremely excellent in hieroglyph writing, pottery, agriculture, mathematics, and calendar- making. Moreover, the empire left behind a remarkable amount of astonishing symbolic artwork and architecture (Coe, 1999).

The Classic Period started at around A.D. 250. This was recognized as the most prosperous period. The Classic Maya Empire developed into forty cities. Some of the cities included Rio Bec, Palenque, Calakmul, Dos Pilas, Bonompak, Copan, Uaxactun, and Tikal. Every city held between five and fifty thousand individuals. During the climax, the Maya empire had more than two million people.

Excavations done at Maya’s sites revealed pyramids, palaces, plazas, temples, and ball game courts. These buildings had a political and ritual significance to the culture. The Maya used both traditional and modern farming methods.

The empire was extremely religious. The Maya worshipped gods associated with nature. The empire was ruled by kings who were related to the gods. The kings were regarded as mediators and adhered to a hereditary sequence. The Maya were regarded as exceptional for their capacity to develop such a huge empire in tropical rainforest weather.


Towards the end of the 8th century until the end of the 9th century, something terrible happened and shook the empire’s foundations (Demarest2004). The Classic cities located in the southern plains were discarded one after the other. By A.D. 900, the Maya Empire in this region had declined.


It is argued that the Maya had overused the environment by the 9th century. Consequently, the environment could not support the huge population. The empire experienced extremely disastrous environmental transformations. For instance, there were periods of prolonged and severe draught in cities such as Tikal (Aimers, 2007: 357). Therefore, Tikal could not access water for irrigation and drinking. This made prosperity extremely hard.

Widespread diseases resulted to extreme depopulation. The most prevalent diseases were spread by pathogens and parasites. Infectious diseases were as a result of tropical rainforest parasites. The majority of residents suffered from acute diarrheal diseases. When an individual was infected by some diseases at childhood, his natural development and nutritional status got affected. This resulted to abnormal growth and the person could not contribute to the empire’s growth. The diseases were aggravated by the catastrophic droughts.

Political and Economic

According to some Maya scholars, there was regular warfare. This was particularly among the contending city- states. Consequently, there was difficult trade, marriage, and military alliances. Later, the alliances and the contemporary dynastic power organization were ruined.

The Maya Empire suffered from invasion from Toltec and other external tribes. Foreign invasion started during the ninth century and prevailed for one hundred years. The invasion ruined the Classic Maya Empire. The collapse of the complex trade systems contributed to the decline of the empire. Therefore, the Maya could not access other places for trade. During the draught, it was impossible to get assistance from other places.

Cultural and Social

With the termination of the holy lords’ importance, the empire’s intricate customs, ceremonies, and rituals decayed. In a nutshell, land overuse, high populations, severe drought, and warfare played a great role in Maya’s decline. During the arrival of Spanish invaders, Maya’s impressive cities had vanished. By then, the Maya were residing in agrarian settlements.


Aimers, JJ 2007, “What Maya Collapse? Terminal Classic Variation in the Maya Lowlands”, J Archaeol Res vol. 15 iss. 2, pp. 329–377.

Coe, MD 1999, The Maya (6th ed.), Thames and Hudson, New York.

Demarest 2004, Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Thompson, JE 1973, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, University of Oklahoma, London.

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