This post is a short analysis of a history article. My goal was to practically apply mental models in order to improve my thinking.

Question to answer: What led to the Mayan’s downfall?

Article Summary

  • The Mayan Empire was centered in the tropical lowlands of what is now Guatemala, and reached the peak of its power and influence around the sixth century A.D.
  • Unlike other scattered Indigenous populations of Mesoamerica, the Maya were centered in one geographical block and remained relatively secure from invasion by other Mesoamerican peoples.
  • They excelled in agriculture, pottery, writing, calendars, and mathematics, and left behind impressive architecture and artwork.
  • They worshiped gods related to nature, and performed elaborate religious ceremonies. At the top of Maya society were the kings, or “kuhul ajaw” (holy lords), who claimed to be related to gods and followed a hereditary succession.
  • By A.D. 900, the Maya had largely abandoned their great stone cities and scholars have debated what caused this decline.
  • The downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands may have been caused by a combination of overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought.


To determine what led to the downfall of the Maya, it’s a good starting point to invert the question and find the fundamental building blocks that led to their success. There are three factors behind the Maya’s power:

  1. No interventions from other Mesoamerican people. The Maya seemed to be a relatively contained system, with trade (and war) happening mostly among them.
  2. Large population of farmers formed the agricultural basis for a large civilization.
  3. The strong religious foundation (objectified in the monuments) legitimized the rulers and created technological advancement (calendars, mathematics, architecture).

Each one of those foundations is a potential failure point. External shocks from the outside, a degradation of the agricultural basis, or the legitimacy behind the ruler could lead to a crisis.

Coincidentally, this coincides with the three factors mentioned in the article for the downfall of the Maya:

  1. Overpopulation: Because for example, there isn’t enough food generated.
  2. Environmental factors: Long and intense drought reducing the agricultural surplus.
  3. Endemic intertribal warfare: Alliances in trade, war, family, and religious legitimacy of the rulers broke down as a result of this.

Which of those explanations is most likely to be true?

I think they can’t really be distinguished since they’re all deeply interrelated. It’s easy to see a causal chain between some of these factors.

Long and intense droughts would lead to a significant reduction of the agricultural surplus, which in turn would lead to overpopulation since the previously grown population in good times can’t be sustained with lesser resources. Overpopulation and lack of food generally leads to civil unrest, degradation of leadership, and inter-societal conflict.

If the civilization can’t stabilize because these pressures are too large for it to handle, it breaks down and reverts to a lower equilibrium of development and civilization. This is exactly what eventually happened with the Maya, as they continued to live in villages that lay in the shadows of their once great cities.

The only factor that could account for the downfall alone would be endemic intertribal warfare. However, what changed to cause it? It could be that an especially ambitious ruler of one of the tribes decided to extend his power and attack neighboring tribes. If the military power on both sides was fairly equal, it could lead to extended warfare (if no party gives in), which would put pressure on the ecosystem at large. But attrition warfare is unlikely to destroy a civilization, not even WWI managed to do that and that war was much more destructive. More likely, it would lead to the stronger party winning and establishing a new power center. Or alternatively, both parties would simply revert back to a similar power equilibrium through peace negotiations.

Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that the one explanation with the fewest assumptions is most likely to be true. A large environmental shock in form of a drought that caused the agricultural pillar to break down and cause severe civil unrest, which in turn eroded the legitimacy of the ruler is a chain of events that just needs one initial shock to be large enough.

What further speaks for this explanation is the fact that the Maya were an exceptional civilization with regards to the scale of their cities and buildings. The article mentions the extraordinariness of this compared to other rainforest civilizations. It could easily be that a few generations of favorable environmental conditions allowed the Maya to grow rapidly into a large, but fragile, civilization that never had to deal with external shocks.

In the end, however, my circle of competence cautions me to be too confident of this conclusion. After all, this analysis is just based on one article.