Digging History

Researchers uncover new clues about Mayan civilization's collapse

(Takeshi Inomata)

(Takeshi Inomata)

Archaeologists have unearthed new clues about the mysterious demise of the Mayan civilization.

A team headed up by researchers from University of Arizona studied ruins in Guatemala and harnessed a slew of radiocarbon dates to shed light on ancient civilization.

The team used chronological data from a record-setting 154 radiocarbon dates at the archaeological site of Ceibal in Guatemala to pinpoint this new information, according to a statement on the university's website.

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Scientists have long believed that the civilization underwent two major collapses, the first of which took place around the 2nd century A.D., and the second, around the 9th century A.D. The radiocarbon data and dating from ceramics and highly controlled archaeology excavations provided new information on the ancient civilization's two major collapses.

The data show that the collapses occurred in waves and were shaped by social instability, warfare and political crises. These events deteriorated major Mayan city centers, according to the team. In addition, the team used the information from the Ceibal site to refine the chronology of when population sizes and building construction increased and decreased.

The new data point to “more complex patterns of political crises and recoveries leading up to each collapse,” the team explained.

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The results will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's not just a simple collapse, but there are waves of collapse,” said the study's lead author Takeshi Inomata, a University of Arizona anthropology professor and archaeologist. “First, there are smaller waves, tied to warfare and some political instability, then comes the major collapse, in which many centers got abandoned. Then there was some recovery in some places, then another collapse.”

While the new findings do not completely solve the mystery of why the civilization collapsed, it gives better hints as to how it came undone, according to the team.