Misconceptions about the Maya

Myth #1: The Maya suffered a population collapse at the end of the Classic Period

Maya architecture next to trees
Tikal is an ancient Mayan citadel in the rainforests of northern Guatemala

Contrary to claims, there is no substantial evidence of a significant population collapse. In fact, when Cortez crossed the Maya forest in 1524, his army of 3,000 soldiers and 100 cavalries were well provisioned and slept regularly under the roofs of Maya homes.

We know that the Maya stopped maintaining palaces and temples at major centers like Tikal and El Pilar, likely related to the inability of the ruling elite to maintain their power. This represents the abandonment of infrastructure as the population shifted to rural development during this power vacuum. Similar to parts of Detroit, where private and public buildings have been abandoned due to the failure of markets and local industries, the Maya removed themselves and left their authority buildings to nature’s elements.

Myth #2: The Maya exhausted their environment to the point that it led to the “collapse” of Maya civilization

Maya architecture next to trees
Industrial plowed field on the left shows soil damage. But the Maya used agricultural practices centered on the milpa cycle on the right, which leads to healthier soil, water conversation, and many more benefits.

Despite making the Maya forest one of the world’s most biodiverse forests, many argue that the ancient Maya used poor agricultural practices that destroyed the forests, farmland, and led to the decline of the civilization. 

This is false. The ancient Maya practiced a sustainable form of farming centered around the Milpa cycle. The forest surrounding ancient Maya sites is a garden, with enough land to support a population equal to that of the Maya at the height of their civilization. With the evident resilience of the surrounding forest and proof of sustainable Maya farming techniques, these practices would not have led to environmental destruction.

Myth #3: The Maya disappeared

Master forest gardener Alfonso Tzul discussing the myth that the Maya disappeared by Exploring Solutions Past

There are approximately seven million Maya living today in Mexico and Central America. These numbers are equal to the Maya population living in the region at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Maya have kept their language and forest gardening practices alive despite marginalization attempts through colonialism, missionary attempts, and political conflict.