The idea that the Maya or Easter Islanders experienced an apocalyptic end makes for good television but bad archaeology.

 Adapted for publication and use by Big History Project from the essay “Do Civilisations Collapse?” by Guy D. Middleton, published on

Note from BHP Team: Collapse. Was this the fate of civilizations like the Maya and Easter Islanders? Or, is there more to the (hi)story? In this month’s Big Question content update, Guy D. Middleton from Newcastle University uncovers the layers of complexity surrounding the notion of civilizational collapse. Don your critical thinking cap with students and claim-test concepts in this article. A great excuse to support, extend, and challenge thinking from Lesson 1.1’s Easter Island Mystery activity, and the many activities and articles on early civilizations from Unit 7.

(For more ideas on how teachers are using this new Big Question article in class, check out this blog post and this conversation in the BHP Online Community!)

Oh, and if you’re eager to chat with the scholar and author himself, please join us for an Exchange in Yammer with Guy Middleton February 19 – 21.

There’s a common story of how the Maya civilization was wiped out: they were victims of unstoppable climate change. Several periods of extreme drought destroyed their crops and killed off thousands. The cities’ palaces and pyramids disappeared until they were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by explorers.

There’s a similar story about the Easter Islanders: they chopped down all the palm trees on their small, isolated island to clear farmland, not realizing that they were eroding their landscape, reducing their food production, and ultimately cutting themselves off from the sea. The Europeans who found the island in the eighteenth century wondered how such primitive people could ever have had a civilization developed enough to carve the majestic moai (stone heads) for which they’re known.

These stories come from the mass media, from history documentaries, and from books on the environment and sustainability. It has even been claimed by some that climate change has been the major factor in the collapse of civilizations. Others have claimed that deforestation and environmental damage have very often been to blame.

The stories are often presented as tales intended to frighten us. They promote environmental responsibility, warning us that we’ll bring about the end of our own global civilization if we don’t change. It’s no coincidence that the stories focus on climate change, human-caused environmental impacts, and overpopulation, because these three factors are the major concerns of our times.

But are these stories, right? Is that really what happened to the Maya and the Easter Islanders? In the view of many archaeologists, collapse is not quite so simple.

The term collapse has specific meanings that can be misunderstood or taken out of context. Many archaeologists define collapse as an abrupt political change and reduction in social complexity. The effects are felt throughout the society, and they leave behind physical evidence that is visible to archaeologists.

Some signs of the collapse of a civilization are:

  • The states that make up the civilization have broken up into smaller political bodies
  • The civilization’s cities have been either partially or completely deserted, and as a result, the centralization of some functions is lost
  • Economic systems have broken down

To some non-archaeologists, those who approach collapse from an ecological perspective, collapse primarily refers to the collapse of a population, meaning the death of many people and significant cultural, political, and social change.

We also need to think about what we apply the term collapse to – what exactly was it that collapsed? Rather than saying that civilizations collapse, it is more accurate to say that states collapse. A state is something we can identify, whereas civilization is a more slippery term. If we think of Egyptian, Greek, or Roman civilizations, we realize that none of these collapsed – they transformed as circumstances and values changed.

It is the same with the Maya and Easter Islanders. In both cases, people have confused civilization and state. The Maya world was spread across a huge area with many different environments. It was an old and interconnected world of cities and kings, divided up among super-states of wide influence and more modest kingdoms that could fall under their control. There were probably 60 to 70 independent states, and the fortunes of all of them went up and down.

All 15 standing moai at Ahu Tongariki, excavated and restored in the 1990s, by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Panorama view of part of Tikal ruins, Guatemala, by J-f.desvignes, CC BY-SA 3.0.

With the Maya, we would expect to see a series of state collapses over a period of around three centuries, not a rapid collapse of the entire civilization. States within the Maya culture zone did collapse (though not all did) and specific parts of the culture were rejected. This resulted in changes to physical aspects of the culture, such as the architecture.

Sometimes, it’s very clear what happened in a specific collapse, as at Cancuén, in the Pasión River region of the southern Maya lowlands. Around 800 CE, there was a fierce battle in the city – one the defenders (the city’s rulers and elite) lost. The city’s grand buildings and monuments were systematically defaced or destroyed, and the city was abandoned.

This story, which is based on the archaeological evidence at Cancuén, tells us about a single rapid collapse – the violent end of one Maya state and its elite class.

The Maya did not disappear, though cities were abandoned, and, over time, the population fell, and aspects of Maya life changed – for example, the rule of the mighty holy lords, the k’uhul ajaw, was rejected. The Maya were still there, living in a complex society, when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. Cities and trade remained, and the Maya collected their wisdom in books. During and after the period of the collapses, new cities were founded (or re-founded) and rivalries between noble families continued. Periodically, cities would be abandoned by elite groups or sometimes by the whole population. This happened for several reasons – infighting and political intrigue, famine and plague.

Almost nine centuries after the massacre at Cancuén, in 1697 CE, the armies of the Spanish destroyed the last independent Maya kingdom. As Christians, they destroyed the “pagan idols” that they found. It was the Christian Spanish who sought to destroy the ancient Maya culture: Thousands of Maya books were burned (only four remain today), and Maya families were broken up and their children re-educated by force. Even so, millions of Maya descendants live in central America today.

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The idea of a collapse of Maya civilization seems wrong and it carries with it the wrong kind of implications. One implication is that the Maya all disappeared. Another is that their post-collapse culture is less important or less worthy of our attention. Through many individual collapses, Maya society transformed – a development that is hardly surprising when compared with the changing map of Europe across any five-century period. Maya society continued to change with the arrival of the Spanish, and through the colonial and modern eras.

Easter Island is now routinely used as a story of eco-disaster and a warning of the dangers of mistreating the global environment. It is a story about eco-collapse that caused population collapse, which then brought about political and social collapse.

Before contact with Europeans, Easter Island culture did change, but it is not clear that it collapsed in any sense. It seems unlikely that there was ever a unified complex state on the island that could collapse. The Easter Island expert Terry Hunt sees no evidence that the population of the island ever grew higher than around 4,000 – a level that is far from unsustainable. There is not conclusive evidence of a population collapse before European contact, which is a key part of the eco-disaster model. The moai carving did stop, but the existing statues remained important for around a century.

Panorama of Anakena beach, Easter Island. The moai pictured here was the first to be raised back into place on its ahu in 1955 by Thor Heyerdahl using the labor of islanders and wooden levers. Photograph by Rivi, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Easter Islanders did not face climate change or the eco-related destruction of their environment. Their way of life was sustainable. Once again, it was outsiders who brought disaster and change. With them came foreign animals, disease, and Christianity. As with the Maya, the local culture was targeted for destruction. The population was drastically reduced by slave raiding. There might have been as few as 750 islanders left by 1864. If there was any collapse, this was it.

Why are dramatic stories of civilizational collapse so appealing in contrast with the more complex versions suggested by many archaeologists? Looking at past collapses, we can feel superior to earlier peoples and societies – we know why they failed and how we can succeed—and our sense of progress is reinforced. When we look at the possibility of near-future collapse, we make ourselves feel more important – we are living at a key time and we have the power to affect global civilization, either positively or negatively.

The stories of the Maya and climate change and the Easter Islanders’ self-destruction suit those who want to make a dramatic argument about our own mistreatment of the environment in modern times, and the possible fate of our own civilization. But such stories take the histories of past and indigenous peoples and turn them into modern Western-focused moral tales. They emphasize the supposed failures of pre-modern and non-Western societies rather than stressing how those societies survived difficulties and the Western role in their eventual destruction.

Looking around us, we can see the trouble we are in. We do not need to make other peoples’ histories into lessons for ourselves. When the evidence for environmentally driven collapses in the past is so weak, and the evidence for destruction related to contact with Europeans so strong, it is strange that the focus is environmental change, rather than the appearance of explorers and invaders. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves what exactly we should be learning from history.

About the author: Guy D. Middleton is a visiting fellow at Newcastle University in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology. His latest book is Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (2017).

Header image: Chichén Itzá by Marv Watson, CC0.


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