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12.6: The Decline of the Maya

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    Learning Objective

    • Explain what happened to the structure of the Maya Empire in the Postclassic period

    Key Points

    • The Maya cities of the northern lowlands in Yucatán continued to flourish.
    • The center of power shifted to the northern peninsula.
    • The Postclassic period was a time of technological advancement in areas of architecture, engineering, and weaponry.
    • The Spanish conquest of the Maya began in the 16th century, but lasted close to 150 years.
    • Mayan languages, agricultural practices, and familial cultures still exist in parts of Chiapas and Guatemala.



    A geographic area in the south of modern day Mexico near Belize.


    A book containing religious and cultural information written in the Mayan script. Only three of these books remain in the world.


    The cultural capital of the Maya culture during the Postclassic period. It was at its height between 1220 and 1440 CE.

    The period after the second collapse of the Maya Empire (900 CE–1600 CE) is called the Postclassic period. The center of power shifted from the central lowlands to the northern peninsula as populations most likely searched for reliable water resources, along with greater social stability.

    The Maya cities of the northern lowlands in Yucatán continued to flourish; some of the important sites in this era were Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Edzná, and Coba. A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (called an ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler known as an ajaw (later k’uhul ajaw). However, the Postclassic period generally saw the widespread abandonment of once-thriving sites as populations gathered closer to water sources. Warfare most likely caused populations in long-inhabited religious cities, like Kuminaljuyu, to be abandoned in favor of smaller, hilltop settlements that had a better advantage against warring factions.

    El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá. Built by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries CE, El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity closely related to the god Quetzalcoatl known to the Aztecs and other central Mexican cultures of the Postclassic period.

    Postclassic Cities

    Maya cities during this era were dispersed settlements, often centered around the temples or palaces of a ruling dynasty or elite in that particular area. Cities remained the locales of administrative duties and royal religious practices, and the sites where luxury items were created and consumed. City centers also provided the sacred space for privileged nobles to approach the holy ruler and the places where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed. These more established cities were the self-proclaimed centers of social, moral, and cosmic order.

    If a royal court fell out of favor with the people, as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan, this fall from power would cause the inevitable “death” and abandonment of the associated settlement. After the decline of the ruling dynasties of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, Mayapan became the most important cultural site until about 1450 CE. This city’s name may be the source of the word “Maya,” which had a more geographically restricted meaning in Yucatec and colonial Spanish. The name only grew to its current meaning in the 19th and 20th centuries. The area degenerated into competing city-states until the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán and shifted the power dynamics.

    Certain smaller Maya groups, such as the Itza Maya, Ko’woj, and Yalain of Central Peten, survived the collapse in the Postclassic period in small numbers. By around 1250 CE these groups had reconstituted themselves to form competing city-states. The Itza maintained their capital at Tayasal (also known as Noh Petén), an archaeological site thought to underlay the modern city of Flores, Guatemala, on Lake Petén Itzá. The Ko’woj had their capital at Zacpeten. Though less visible during this era, Postclassic Maya states also continued to survive in the southern highlands.

    Artistry, Architecture, and Religion

    The Postclassic period is often viewed as a period of cultural decline. However, it was a time of technological advancement in areas of architecture, engineering, and weaponry. Metallurgy came into use for jewelry and the development of some tools utilizing new metal alloys and metalworking techniques that developed within a few centuries. And although some of the classic cities had been abandoned after 900 CE, architecture continued to develop and thrive in newly flourishing city-states, such as Mayapan. Religious and royal architecture retained themes of death, rebirth, natural resources, and the afterlife in their motifs and designs. Ballcourts, walkways, waterways, pyramids, and temples from the Classic period continued to play essential roles in the hierarchical world of Maya city-states.

    A religious building at Mayapan along the northern Yucatán Peninsula. Curved walls, complex carvings, and layered platforms illustrate the continued prevalence of architecture in Maya culture and religion during the Postclassic period.

    Maya religion continued to be centered around the worship of male ancestors. These patrilineal intermediaries could vouch for mortals in the physical world from their position in the afterlife. Archeological evidence shows that deceased relatives were buried under the floor of family homes. Royal dynasties built pyramids in order to bury their ancestors. This patrilineal form of worship was used by some royal dynasties in order to justify their right to rule. The afterlife was complex, and included thirteen levels in heaven and nine levels in the underworld, which had to be navigated by an initiated priesthood, ancestors, and powerful deities.

    Precise food preparation, offerings, and astronomical predictions were all required for religious practices. Powerful deities that often represented natural elements, such as jaguars, rain, and hummingbirds, needed to be placated with offerings and prayers regularly. Many of the motifs on large pyramids and temples of the royal dynasties reflect the worship of both deities and patrilineal ancestors and provide a window into the daily practices of this culture before the arrival of Spanish forces.

    The Colonial Period

    Shortly after their first expeditions to the region in the 16th century, the Spanish attempted to subjugate the Maya polities several times. The Maya leaders and people were understandably hostile towards the Spanish crown, and utilized bows and arrows, spears, and padded armor in defense of their city-states. The Spanish campaign, sometimes termed “The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán,” would prove to be a lengthy and dangerous exercise for the invaders from the outset, and it would take some 170 years and tens of thousands of Indian auxiliaries before the Spanish established substantive control over all Maya lands.

    Pages from the Paris Codex. One of three surviving examples of Mayan writing, the Paris Codex offers keen insights into religious and patrilineal traditions before the Spanish invasion.

    Unlike the Aztec and Inca Empires, there was no single Maya political center during the Postclassic period that, once overthrown, would hasten the end of collective resistance from the indigenous peoples. Instead, Spanish forces needed to subdue the numerous independent Maya polities almost one by one, many of which kept up a fierce resistance. Myths of gold and precious metals motivated many Spanish forces to capture and dominate the Maya lands. However, the Yucatán does not offer rich mining opportunities, and some areas were difficult to navigate because of the dense jungle environment.

    As the battle over control of the region waged on, the Spanish church and government officials destroyed the vast majority of Maya texts and, with them, a large swath of knowledge about Maya writing and language. Fortunately, three of the pre-Columbian books dated to the Postclassic period survived the Spanish invasion and destruction of Maya culture. These are known as the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex, and the Paris Codex. The last Maya states (and the last indigenous holdouts from Spanish control in the Americas)—the Itza polity of Tayasal and the Ko’woj city of Zacpeten—remained independent of the Spanish until late in the 17th century. They were finally subdued by the Spanish in 1697 after many casualties.

    Maya Today

    Although Spanish weaponry, administration, and practices became much more dominant throughout Mesoamerica by the 17th century and onward, the Maya people persisted, along with many of their essential traditions. Today, in remote parts of Guatemala and Chiapas, similar familial configurations, uses of the 260-day Maya calendar, and agricultural practices continue to shape families of descendants. Millions of Mayan-language speakers inhabit their ancestral lands and keep these languages and traditions alive.

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