Ancient Maya Practiced ‘Total War’

August 6, 2019

It’s thought that widespread destruction of Maya cities only began when droughts threatened food supplies. A surprising find at the bottom of a lake is helping to upend that theory.

A long-standing idea about the ancient Maya is that for most of the civilization’s 700-year-long Classic period, which lasted from 250 to 950 A.D., warfare was more or less ritualized. Perhaps the royal family might be kidnapped, or some symbolic structures torn down, but large-scale destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties were supposedly rare.

Researchers have generally believed that only towards the very end of the Classic period, increasing droughts would have reduced food supplies, in turn escalating tensions between Maya kingdoms and resulting in violent warfare that is believed to have precipitated their decline.

Research presented today in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, however, is adding to the evidence that violent, destructive warfare targeting both military and civilian resources (often referred to as “total warfare”) was taking place even before a changing climate imperiled Maya agriculture.

Evidence of drought in what’s known as the Terminal Classic period (800-950 A.D.), and how it may have affected agriculture, was what paleoclimatologist David Wahl of the U.S. Geological Survey set out to find in 2013 when he first made his way through the dense jungle of northern Guatemala towards a lake known as Laguna Ek’Naab.

The lake is situated at the bottom of a steep cliff topped by the ruins of the ancient Maya city archaeologists call Witzna, and Wahl believed the sediment on the bottom of the lake might reveal what happened to the people that once thrived there.

“Due to the steep surrounding landscape, sediment accumulated in this lake at the rate of about 1 cm [approximately 0.4 inches] every year,” he explains, “providing us with high-resolution information of what was going on in the area.” Fast-accumulating sediment indicates that forests were cut and land was cleared, causing increased erosion, while corn pollen found in those sediments leave no doubt about the main crop grown in the area. Yet the most remarkable thing Wahl found at the bottom of Laguna Ek’Naab was a 1.2-inch-thick layer comprised of large chunks of charcoal.

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