Classic Maya Collapse Essay

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Climate Change and Trade Networks as Causes of the Classic Maya Collapse

The ancient Lowland Maya were a thriving and advanced society, capable of building great monuments able to survive to the present. It is therefore a mystery as to why, at the end of the Classic period from the eighth to eleventh century, Maya sites show signs of massive decline and desertion; this is referred to as the “collapse” of the Maya, though it was not an immediate or evenly distributed phenomenon (Douglas, Demarest, Brenner, & Canuto, 2016, 614, 634). Several theories as to the causes of the collapse have been suggested. One points to severe droughts caused by climate change during this period (Douglas et al., 2016), while another suggests changes in trade networks played a role (Golitko, Meierhoff, Feinman, & Williams, 2012).
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The study by Golitko et al. (2012) examined obsidian distribution—a material valuable to the Maya which can easily be traced to its source—in order to map trade routes during the Classic, Terminal Classic, and Postclassic periods. The results show that Classic trade relied mainly on inland networks, but there were emerging coastal routes, particularly along the northern Yucatan Peninsula, which, by the Terminal Classic period, were transporting large amounts while the inland routes saw great decline (Golitko et al., 2012, 511-514). This shows the shift towards coastal routes had begun before societal collapse, an important point because it means that trade changes did not occur because of the collapse. Causes of this inland-to-coastal trade shift remain unclear; however, prior to trade change or drought, the Maya political system was unstable due to continuous political competition between cities and within dynasties, which caused frequently shifting political alliances as well as physical conflict (Douglas, et al., 617). Douglas et al. (2016, 617) note trade as a tool used to

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