Ceibal Maya
A temple in the Maya site of Ceibal Sébastian Homberger /Wiki Commons

The Maya society at Ceibal, Guatemala, collapsed twice, each time profoundly transforming the political systems which had been in place before, scientists have said. Using radiocarbon dating, they have come up with one of the most precise chronologies to date of the events that led to the civilisation's demise.

The collapse of the Maya civilisation during the classic era, around the 9th century, has been well studied, in part thanks to rich hieroglyphic records. Cities were abandoned and the sophisticated culture fell into oblivion as a result of increased warfare and gradual political decline.

In contrast, even though there is evidence that another collapse occurred more than six centuries before, very little is known about it.

The study now published in PNAS looks at how both collapses unfolded, dating precisely the events leading up to it, and showing a parallel between these two moments of Maya history.

Chronology at Ceibal

Since 2005, a team of researchers has been running a project known as the Ceibal-Petexbatun Archaeological Project at the ancient Maya site of Ceibal. This site has a long and rich history of occupation spanning nearly 2,000 years, from the so-called "Preclassic period" to the "Classic period" (from 1000 BC to AD 950). Since their work there began, archaeologists have determined 154 radiocarbon dates from charcoal samples recovered at the site.

In this research, they used these dates and conducted an in-depth analysis of ceramics discovered at Ceibal to come up with a precise chronology of the site's history. This allowed them to trace the trajectories of the first, Preclassic collapse around AD 150–300 and the second, Classic collapse around AD 800–950.

In the two cases, they found that similar factors and social contexts could be blamed for causing the demise of the Maya society. The researchers established that violent warfare intensified around 75 BC and AD 735 respectively. Bloody conflicts were then followed by social unrest and the political disintegration of multiple centres across the Maya lowlands, around AD 150 and 810.

However, the outcomes of the two collapses were different and resulted in very different reorganisations of the political sphere.

In the wake of the Preclassic collapse, political power was centralised, with the development of dynasties with a divine ruler. On the contrary, following the second collapse in the Classic period, this political system based on divine and authoritarian rulers evolved toward a more decentralised organisation and structure of power, with a stronger reliance on seaborne trade.