David Wahl (right) and Lysanna Anderson taking a sample from Lake Ek’Naab using a hand-operated piston core on an inflatable platform. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Estrada-Belli, Tulane University)


The Maya of Central America are thought to have been a kinder, gentler civilization, especially compared to the Aztecs of Mexico. At the peak of Mayan culture some 1,500 years ago, warfare seemed ritualistic, designed to extort ransom for captive royalty or to subjugate rival dynasties, with limited impact on the surrounding population.

Only later, archeologists thought, did increasing drought and climate change lead to total warfare — cities and dynasties were wiped off the map in so-called termination events — and the collapse of the lowland Maya civilization around 1,000 A.D. (or C.E., current era).

New evidence unearthed by a researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, and the U.S. Geological Survey calls all this into question, suggesting that the Maya engaged in scorched-earth military campaigns — a strategy that aims to destroy anything of use, including cropland — even at the height of their civilization, a time of prosperity and artistic sophistication.

The finding also indicates that this increase in warfare, possibly associated with climate change and resource scarcity, was not the cause of the disintegration of the lowland Maya civilization.

“These data really challenge one of the dominant theories of the collapse of the Maya,” said David Wahl, a UC Berkeley adjunct assistant professor of geography and a researcher at the USGS in Menlo Park, California. “The findings overturn this idea that warfare really got intense only very late in the game.”

Total warfare

The evidence, reported today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, is an inch-thick layer of charcoal at the bottom of a lake, Laguna Ek’Naab, in Northern Guatemala: a sign of extensive burning of a nearby city, Witzna, and its surroundings that was unlike any other natural fire recorded in the lake’s sediment.

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