Researchers are speculating that some segments of Mayan civilization crumbled because of beliefs that malevolent spirits inhabited Mayan areas that had been deserted due to environmental catastrophes.
The Maya once claimed an area about the size of Texas, with cities and fields that occupied what is now southern Mexico and northern Central America, including the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. The height of the Mayan civilization, known as the Classic period, extended from approximately AD 250 to at least 900.
According to LiveScience.com, the Classic Maya would have implicated gods and their "divine" rulers for the collapse. In that way, their abandoned territories became thought of as chaotic or haunted, and reclaiming any lands from the forest was at best done with great care and ritual. Survivors in outlying sites may often not have bothered.
"I have little doubt that droughts and environmental degradation — for example, soil erosion or declining soil fertility — played roles in the collapse, defined here as a substantial and prolonged decline in population, of some sites or regions," said researcher Nicholas Dunning, a geographer at the University of Cincinnati. "There is also the important role played by the environmental setting of sites — for example, sites in the elevated interior region were significantly more vulnerable to drought cycles than those in surrounding lower-elevation areas where water was more abundant."
"But the fact that collapse was often a patchwork affair and a prolonged process does indeed strongly suggest that cultural factors — for example, strength of rulership, flexibility of the society and its ability to adapt to change — were equally important for determining whether or not a given site or group of sites adapted or collapsed," Dunning told LiveScience.
While some locales remained abandoned for long periods, others recovered more quickly. This patchwork pattern of recovery might argue against environmental catastrophes being the sole determining factor behind the collapse.