Abstract: The Classic Maya Collapse: The View from the Cave


The Classic Maya Collapse of the ninth century has been intensely studied for over 150 years and has traditionally been considered one of archaeology's great mysteries.  In recent years our understanding of the "collapse" has become more nuanced and archaeologists now generally refer to the collapse as a change in the political structure limited to the southern and eastern Maya lowlands.  As archaeological studies have provided more fine-grained site chronologies, regional paleoclimate studies have provided a new data source from which to evaluate proximal causes for these structural changes. Many of the newer causation models suggest that loss of faith in the Maya rulership by the populace was at least partially responsible for the collapse of the political structure, but to date no one has offered evidence from the archaeological record.  Data collected from the ancient Maya ritual cave site of Chechem Ha in western Belize suggests that there was a ritual response to climatic drying during the later part of the 9th century in the form of a Late Classic drought cult. Although the phenomenon was identified in this case study, the pattern is prevalent throughout the eastern lowlands. This research provides the first evidence of a failed ritual response to environmental stress, implying that a loss of faith in Maya rulership contributed to the downfall of political systems.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Moyes, Holley, Jaime J. Awe, George Brook, and James Webster, 2009, The Ancient Maya Drought Cult: Late Classic Cave Use in Belize, Latin American Antiquity 20(1): 175-206.

Moyes, Holley, 2008, Charcoal as a Proxy for Use-Intensity in Ancient Maya Cave Ritual. In Religion, Archaeology, and the Material World, edited by Lars Fogelin, pp. 139-158, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Carbondale, Illinois.

Moyes, Holley, 2004,Changes and Continuities in Ritual Practice at Chechem Ha Cave, Belize: Report on Excavations Conducted in the 2003 Field Season. Report submitted to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., http://www.famsi.org/reports

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