What the Maya collapse can tell us about our future

Ajax Copperwater

Circa 800 CE. The Mayan city Cancuén lost its king, Kan Maax. He was executed and un-ceremonially buried in a shallow pit. His family of 31 men, women and children, were brutally murdered and thrown in a pool.

Cancuén was a major city, the centre of the Mayan world. Thus the city prospered on trade, being strategically and geographically located, akin to what Singapore is to the economic world. Tajal Chan Ahk, Kan Maax's predecessor, was the man who nurtured Cancuén to its greatness.

Tajal Chan Ahk was known for his statesmanship, forging alliances with Mayan kings, often by marrying off his daughters. Maintaining peace was a difficult task for any leaders, but during a time when cities were collapsing around Cancuén, it really showed Tajal Chan Ahk's extraodrinary abilities.

So, the question is, if  Cancuén were thriving under Tajal Chan Ahk, why did it collapse like its neighbouring cities?  First, to explain what happened to Cancuén's neighbours.

As of 800 CE, the Mayan world was experiencing a severe drought which would last 200 more years. Most affected were the southern Mayans, who were nowhere near the sea that could had provided an alternative source of food. Not helping matters were the over-usage of resources by the Mayan nobles commissioning huge building projects to glorify themselves and to increase their prestige over other nobles.

As a tradition, Mayan kings had huge family size. Therefore, after some generations of kings had taken the throne, a city-state would consist of a royal family and several many noble families. One could imagine the noble would try to outdo each other for prestige and favour of the king.

In Cancuén, only a king of Tajal Chan Ahk's ability could hold the city-state and the various noble families together. The glue that held everything together came apart upon Tajal Chan Ahk's death. Tension between noble families became even more strained. Subsequently, the nobles' rivalry spilled over to the peasants, who had become more dissatisfied with the worsening political and natural environment.

With the deteriorating drought, food and water had become harder to obtain. People were wondering if their gods were angry at the nobles, who some served as the city's only priests capable of communicating with the gods. The ruins of Cancuén gave some clues that the peasants had revolted against the king and the nobles, who they saw as the source of the gods' wrath in the form of the drought.

Even Cancuén, a once-booming city, shared its neighbours' fate and felt into ruins, circa 800 CE. Its king and nobles could not recognise the problem that was brewing around them and they had contributed to the declining state of the city with its grandiose building projects at the expense of the people and the environment.

What happened to Cancuén's inhabitants after its destruction? There was no definitive answer to that question but one could imagine the survivors would become refugees. They could have either seek shelters in other still-thriving cities or merge into the countryside to survive on whatever meagre resources they could gather.

In today's modern world, we face a climate change which will no doubt devastate our way of life. Climate change not only means extreme change in temperature and weather, it also brings about the increase in diseases, global food crisis as well as more social unrest. Hence, it is governmental policies that determines whether a country and its people could survive this coming crisis.

The Mayans have an interesting philosophy: they believed knowing the past means understanding the cyclical influences that created the present, and by understanding this cyclical influences of the present, they would see the cyclical influences of the future.

Will we share the same fate as Cancuén? There is a possible chance as history often repeats itself. From the fall of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, the end of the Han Dynasty China to the recent collapse of Yugoslavia. Avoiding a global societal collapse depends on what we do with the current technology and the knowledge that we have. Most important of all, we must learn from history how the Ancients survive climate change and societal collapse.


Picture from Wikipedia.