The conflict between two archrivals, Tikal and Calakmul, can be explained through military, commercial and political perspectives. It is worth noting that Tikal was the first founded. Its historical development can be traced back to the Preclassic period. Its first king founded a new ruling house before the downfall of El Mirador. However, the origins of Tikal’s founder are unknown, thus this is a major source of conflict between the two rivals. Later on, during the same period, Calakmul became the new seat of the Kan ruling house. Once the king was able to assert his authority, he began rebuilding the city. During the rebuilding, an expansion process sets Calakmul on a collision course with Tikal.
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Tikal gained strength, especially after 378 AD when it enhanced its network of allies. As a result, it had access to greater resources. Thus, Tikal was able to impose its authority over lowland polities, such as Uaxactun, Rio Azul, and Copan. On the other hand, Calakmul strengthened its dominance over other lowland states and even succeeded in displacing former Tikal’s allies. The success of both Tikal and Calakmul can be explained through their free access to the resources.
As both kingdoms expanded their dominion over large territories, it became apparent that Tikal and Calakmul had to settle the issue concerning which state would control critical overland portages as well as river systems needed for their commercial and military activities.
Aside from the commercial aspect of their rivalry, the conflict could be caused by differences in ideological beliefs. Tikal claimed that their heritage could be traced as far back as the Early Preclassic period. By doing so, Tikal exerted their claim that their origins were linked to the oldest dynasties in the lowlands. Calakmul, on the other hand, asserted that it was connected with an older dynastic history. Things became worse when Tikal took over Rio Azul because it was considered as a challenge to Calakmul as it may threaten its free access to the Caribbean. It began a fierce competition that ripened into open warfare between the two kingdoms.
On West of the Mayan world, one could find a country called Palenque. This kingdom was considered an ally of Tikal. In the middle of the 5th century AD, there was a rise of Palenque to its glory. This particular kingdom was in conflict with the others, especially with the Calakmul, the archrival of Tikal. However, Tonina, another Mayan city, caused a lot of damage and eroded the political and military power of Palenque.
Tonina became the major rival of Palenque simply because this kingdom used warfare as a tool to expand its influence to the Western part of the Mayan world. In the ancient ruins found in the region, one can find any evidence of a savage fight between the two states. For example, Palenque had captured a prominent leader from Tonina, then Tonina, in its turn, kidnapped a king of Palenque. As a rule, Tonina held these kings demanding ransom, and if Palenque refused to pay, the king was beheaded. In the protracted battle between the two kingdoms, Palenque was weakened by the constant warfare initiated by Tonina.
During the Classic period, the Copan kingdom was founded in the south-eastern part of the Mayan world. The Copan dynasty can trace its origins to the Early Preclassic period. During its long history, the Copan kings succeeded to subjugate the kingdom of Quirigua. However, after some time, the weak became strong. One of the greatest kings in the history of Copan dominion was captured by their rival. It is important to note that the great Copan king, Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, was the one who oversaw the inauguration of a new ruler of Quirigua who was also his nephew. The new king was called Tiliw Chan Yopaat.
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The unbroken relationship between Copan and Quirigua became strained when the new king of Quirigua claimed the title of k’huhul ajaw. It can be interpreted as a bid to assert greater control over the region. It can also be argued that Tiliw Chan Yopaat set his eyes on the lucrative trade that flowed through his precincts. In one bold move, he captured Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil and sacrificed him to the gods of the Quirigua. In one stroke, Quirigua was able to destroy the hegemony of the Copan kingdom in this part of the Mayan world.
The name “Dos Pilas” is translated as “two pools”. The history of this kingdom can be traced to the Late Classic Period. It is believed that the city was founded by a rebel king who came from Tikal and that he built the city to spite the kingdom of Tikal. This assertion is supported by glyphs found in Tikal that mentioned attacks made by Dos Pilas. The king of Dos Pilas strengthened his military power by allowing his relatives to marry nobles from other kingdoms. In the late of the 7th century AD, this king launched an unprecedented war that was against all the rules of warfare in the Mayan World as there had been an unspoken agreement that there would be no wars during the harvest season. But with this act, the king of Quirigua caused open warfare and conflict that had no limits.
The successors of the Quirigua’s king attacked and conquered Seibal in 735 AD. In the said military conquest, the king of Quirigua, designated by historians as Ruler III, defeated Jaguar Paw. As a consequence of that military victory, Dos Pilas was able to subjugate Seibal for 60 years. It was a tremendous victory for Quirigua because, in the same period, this particular kingdom managed to control a lucrative trade route along with Rio de la Pasion.
The collapse of the Late Classic Mayan kingdoms is attributed to many factors. But it is wrong to blame the invasion of the Europeans as the major reason for the downfall of the said kingdoms. Although the Spaniards came in 1527, it was not until the year 1697 that they were able to totally dominate the whole Mayan world. Thus, there was a delay that lasted for two centuries, from the time that the Europeans arrived and when the Mayan kingdoms were eradicated.
The arrival of the Europeans was not the major reason for the demise of the Mayan kingdoms. However, the mere act of conquest is a contributing factor to the collapse because it involves the subjugation of kingdoms. The primary explanation why the European invasion cannot be the major cause of the collapse is based on the fact that upon the arrival of the Spaniards, they saw a poor divided land (Bley 82). The Mayan kingdoms of that period were a pale imitation of those that had created majestic structures a thousand years before.
It can be argued that it was Mayan warfare that significantly contributed to the collapse of the Mayan kingdoms. It is a characteristic feature of conflict because it was intense and chronic. The decision of the king of Quirigua to attack another city during the harvest time gave him the upper hand in battle because his enemies were caught unprepared. But it was a dangerous precedent because everyone was put on guard waiting for the next attack. As the level of distrust was growing, people became preoccupied with the only thing.
Aside from the treachery displayed by the king of Quirigua, another reason why an incessant war had broken out before the Europeans came can be explained through the geographical challenges faced by the Mayan kings. Due to the limitations of food supply, there was no means to build a strong army and a citadel that could withstand the attacks of the outsiders. At the same time, the geographic conditions made it difficult for the kings to unite and build an empire.
An obvious consequence of war became an untimely death. Thus, any young man could be captured or killed, and that made it impossible for a person to build a sound family and state as well. It can be said that the Mayan kingdoms experienced a drastic drop in population due to the incessant wars between the rivals.
Another significant consequence of the war was the inefficient use of food supplies. There is no need to elaborate on the fact that the top priority of a Mayan kingdom was to survive during the attack. Everything else became of the second priority because if they were defeated in war, then it would mean that their whole nation ceased to exist. It is, therefore, easy to understand why the city’s resources were diverted to support and feed the army. In times of drought or poor harvest, one can just imagine the impact of such practices. The soldiers were well-fed, but the rest people were unable to receive the necessary nourishment for living as productive members of society.
There are studies that confirm the influence of other contributing factors that led to malnutrition. Aside from war, the degradation of the environment may have had an indirect effect that resulted in lesser yield. There is evidence to suggest that the disappearance of rainforests throughout the Mayan landscape caused a poorer harvest, but at the same time, it significantly decreased the rates of annual rainfalls (Hughes 46).
The decrease in rainfall did not only affect agriculture, but it also had an impact on transportation because the main form of transportation was through water, such as the use of canoes and similar carriers. The immense changes in the natural landscape significantly affected food supplies. Furthermore, the huge reduction in the forest cover also influenced the availability of animals that could be hunted. Thus, the diet of the Mayan people was severely changed by the challenges that they faced before the collapse of the Mayan kingdoms.
The population weakened by the lack of the access to nutritious food could become more susceptible to diseases. Anthropologists who study the Mayan culture have detected problems of diseases and malnutrition during that period. The study of skeletons revealed that many of the Mayan people had suffered deterioration in health through the Late Classic period. Malnutrition had ruined the citizens’ health which resulted in numerous illnesses.
It was very difficult to maintain the kingdoms in all their glory and grandeur when the people were dying from hunger and diseases. The problems that they encountered were exacerbated by the fact that the Mayan cities were overpopulated. According to one report, the diseases that killed many people were also linked to high population densities. These medical conditions were brought about by Ascaris worms and diarrhea. It is also reported that the average life span during the time of the collapse was only thirty years. Moreover, mortality rate was as high as 40 percent (Hughes 47).
The Terminal Classic period is often characterized as a move towards the southern lowlands. The decline in the economy, health, governance and military spheres in the Mayan kingdoms was already evident in the second part of the 9th century AD. After the collapse of the Mayan kingdoms, the great cities were abandoned. There was also a marked slowdown in terms of cultural and intellectual activities.
There were no great achievements as compared to the Early and Late Classic Period. As a result, there was no major improvements and reconstructions in administrative, residential and ceremonial structures. Thus, the temples in different cities were no longer maintained. At the same time, the level of trade in such luxury items, like pottery, jade, and shell, continue to decrease during that period. This fact helps explain the existence of ruins in many parts of South America.
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There were squatters who lived in abandoned cities. Anthropologists discovered graffiti and garbage that those left. There were a few cities which managed to survive the collapse, especially those located near the water trade routes. They provided their citizens with all the necessary provision because there were other alternative commodities that could be used for trade, such as cotton and cacao, to gain profits.
There were also major changes in the political sphere. During the Classic and Late-Classic periods, it was the king who was venerated by the people. This can be proven through the study of the stelae of that period. However, in the aftermath of the decline, the king was no longer the dominant leader in the community. The elite members of the community began to share the stage with the king. After the collapse, the king was no longer seen as the supreme political and religious authority in the Mayan world.
During the Terminal Classic Period, the Mayan culture saw greater interaction between the Mayan people, the Mexicans and foreigners from the Gulf Coast region. It is wrong to say that most of these encounters were friendly. The intense political and economic problems within the Mayan cities were exacerbated by the fact that the foreigners from the Valley of Mexico and the Gulf States were moving deeper into the Mayan territory. Their actions resulted in the disruption of trade routes and communications. In some cases, the foreigners were able to control some Mayan cities.
There were major changes in the products that were traded. For example, traditional Maya pottery was replaced with imported goods. At the same time, non-Maya designs became evident in the sculptures of the region. Furthermore, there was a major shift in the use of trade routes. Before this period, the most common route was through overland trails and rivers. But in the Terminal Classic Period, there was a radical change towards seagoing crafts.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Mayan kingdoms, the old players in the region, like Tikal and Tonina, were replaced by Puuc, Coba and Eastern Yucatan. There was another major player that is worth mentioning, this is Chichen Itza. It is considered as a complex and enigmatic city. It played a major role in Mayan lowland history during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods. It must be pointed out that the ascendancy of Chichen Itza was not possible without the decline and fragmentation of other Mayan kingdoms.
Chichen Itza was also founded in an attempt to revive whatever was left from the Mayan kingdoms. Moreover, it was a showcase of the integration of the Mayan culture into those that were found outside the borders of the Mayan world. It can be argued that the major influence on the Mayan kingdoms’ collapse was made by people that came from Yucatan, Mexico. Chichen Itza can be interpreted as a new source of political and commercial leadership that appeared during the Terminal Classic period.
Chichen Itza was a symbol of resilience and a major evidence of the past glory of the Mayan kingdoms. But after the collapse, Chichen Itza was unable to sustain its growth. Two hundred years after the ruin of the Mayan world, this city also suffered the same fate as the other Mayan kingdoms. As a matter of fact, the same factors were at play. The warfare and political rivalry were enough to weaken the political and economic structures of Chichen Itza. In the same manner, the inability to secure stable sources of food as well as the impact of healthcare issues were powerful factors that contributed to the decline of this ancient city.
Bley, Bonnie. The Ancient Maya and their City of Tulum. IN: iUniverse Publishing, 2011. Print.
Hughes, Donald. An Environmental History of the World. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.