Archaeologists still baffled by ‘Great Mayan Disappearance’ that left ancient cities empty

Maya: Archaeologists discover Mayan royal palace

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The ancient Maya have eluded archaeologists for decades. John Lloyd Stephens, an American traveler and archaeologist, is largely regarded as having been the first Western person to discover the lost civilisation between 1839 and 1842. While the Maya live today, their ancestors abandoned some of their greatest and most complex cities over 1,000 years ago.

Many theories have since surfaced attempting to explain why they left the lands they had inhabited since around 2,600 BC, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, shifting trade routes and extended drought.

Yet, the question has never been fully answered.

Another theory was explored during the History Channel’s documentary, ‘Ancient Aliens: The Great Mayan Disappearance’, that suggested the Maya’s calendar corresponded with their disappearance.

All of the sacred sites in present-day northern Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras were vacated, one after the other.

The largest, Tikal, found in a rainforest in Guatemala, was the capital of the conquest state that became one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.

Ed Barnhart, an archaeologist speaking the documentary, described Tikal as the “signature city of the Maya”.

He said: “It was also one of the last cities to be walked away from, so you get the impression that whatever happened that compelled people to walk away from the cities, Tikal was the last one to do it.”

Scholars believe that at its height, the classic Maya population may have been as large as 20 million.

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After the collapse, however, up to 95 percent of the Maya were unaccounted for.

Erich von Däniken, an author, said: “We still do not know why they left their cities; it was not a war because you find no traces of war, no traces of destruction.

“They left, we know neither why nor where they went.”

Historians and researchers have noted that the disappearance seems to align with the end of one of their calendar cycles known as, ‘The Long Calendar’.


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While researchers are unsure why they created the calendar, they are aware that its timings correspond with major events, suggesting the Maya led their lives based on and around it.

The calendar was created in a way that counted down 5,125 years, or “one great cycle”, and was further divided into 13 units of approximately 400 years each called, ‘Baktuns’.

At the end of each Baktun, the Maya held a major celebration.

Yet, as Mr Barnhart explained: “The Baktun came up in 830 AD, and they should’ve celebrated it.

“But, we know at Tikal there was no celebration.”

The absence of celebration has led many to suggest that their disappearance could have been planned according to their calendar, as surviving Maya talk of how their ancestors “went home”.

Archaeoastronomers have noted that the seven most important pyramids in the Grand Plaza at Tikal form the same geometric patterns as the seven stars comprising the pleiades constellation, a star cluster revered by many ancient cultures around the world.

Many researchers maintain that the departure was likely a combination of events that forced the Maya to leave their cities.

And, what is certain is that they didn’t disappear in the aftermath of the collapse.

Instead, cities in the northern lowlands region, such as Chichen Itza and later Mayapan (both located in present-day Yucatan, Mexico), rose to prominence.

They also went on to establish cities in the highlands region, such as Q’umarkaj (in present-day Guatemala).

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