Researchers rewrite Mayan history after discovering early evidence of ‘total war’ that led to collapse

From what researchers have been able to gather about the ancient Mayans, they did not resort to total warfare until after 800 CE, but results of a new study strongly suggests they were waging total war much earlier.

Geologist David Wahl of the U.S. Geological Survey and his team of researchers from other scientific disciplines set out to discover evidence of such warfare in an earlier era known as the Classic Period, which is dated from 250 CE to 950 CE.

And so, they traveled to the site of the ancient Mayan city of Witzna located in present-day Guatemala, where hundreds of potential archaeological sites are still waiting to be found and excavated.

The team had to take sediment samples from the site to analyze deeper layers of the ground. Each layer corresponds with specific time periods, and they had to find the layer associated with the Mayans around 700 CE.

They found the layer and extracted core samples, similar to ice cores taken by scientists. Only this time, they were looking for evidence of fire.

But they also examined a monument fragment that showed evidence of being burned.


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An arrow points to the location of a burn mark on a monument fragment indicating a fire. Image via Nature.

And then there’s the evidence of melting on the excavated floor of a building site.


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Arrow pointing to a part of the stone floor melted by a hot burning fire. Image via Nature.

If that wasn’t enough, the sediment samples taken from a nearby lake provided them with enough evidence to deduce that a major conflagration tore through the city and corresponds with a recorded battle.

“Here we present palaeoenvironmental evidence of a massive fire event and link the event to a specific attack recorded in the epigraphic record,” the team wrote in their report published by Nature.

“We show that the common Classic period war statement puluuy (it burned) was used to describe a battle that took place on 21 May 697 at the Classic period site of Witzna. The archaeological evidence of this battle includes widespread destruction and burning of the major monuments across Witzna and a distinct charcoal layer deposited in a lake adjacent to Witzna. The charcoal deposit indicates that a fire event, by far the largest of the entire 1,700-yr sediment sequence, occurred during the last decade of the seventh century.”

Indeed, the word puluuy does mean “it burned” but the team argues that it could also mean “total war” and also pointed out that the Mayan name for Witzna is Bahlam Jol, according to inscriptions on preserved monuments.

“We interpret palaeoenvironmental evidence for a dramatic reduction in local land use after the attack as reflecting decreased population,” the team wrote. “These findings provide a means to clarify the connotation of the textual data and suggest that puluuy describes acts of total warfare.”

“The depth of the charcoal deposit corresponds to an inflection point in the non-carbonate-mineral MAR curve, which marks an abrupt and substantial decrease in erosion,” the team explained.

“These changes reflect a pronounced change in land-use intensity immediately after the fire event.”

Mayan pyramid, Guatemala via Wikimedia Commons

A record left on a monument indicates that the Mayan city of Naranjo launched the attack.

“This evidence reveals specifics of warfare rarely documented in the archaeological record. The synchronicity of the large charcoal deposit and the ‘burned’ statement on Naranjo’s Stela 22 provide strong evidence that the sedimentary charcoal was produced by fires that razed Bahlam Jol on 21 May 697.”

“Excavations across the entire site of Witzna show that all major structures, including the royal palace and inscribed monuments, were destroyed by fire in the Late Classic period sometime between 650 and 800.”
“The decreased rate and magnitude of erosion subsequent to the attack indicate widespread abandonment and markedly decreased human disturbance in the water-shed. Naranjo’s attack on Bahlam Jol appears to have destroyed the site and severely impacted the local population. As such, it can be described as an act of total war.”

“Because people often burn forest to clear land, charcoal is quite common in lake sediments in the area,” Wahl told National Geographic. “But in 20 years of sampling lakes, I had never seen a layer this thick. This is right at the time when the charcoal was shown to have accumulated in the lake, allowing us to confidently link the description to the actual fire.”

Naranjo itself would fall around 950 CE due to political turmoil and severe changes in the climate that made living there much more difficult. The city also suffered looting.


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Ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Naranjo in Guatemala. Image via Wikimedia.

Because of the team’s research, the history books are being re-written on the Mayans and their empire as it seems pretty clear that an entire city was set aflame and destroyed by a rival city.


Ruins of the temple at Naranjo. Image via Wikimedia.

“Our findings challenge theories that this level of violence was limited to the TCP (Terminal Classic period) and developed as a result of environmental stress and increased competition for limited resources,” the team concluded.

“Burning cities down appears to have been a common tactic much earlier than previously thought,” Wahl adds.

“So I think the idea that the emergence of violent warfare towards the end caused the Maya’s demise really needs reconsideration.”

Archaeologists who did not participate in the study are impressed by the findings.

“What is unique [in the new] study is that the effect of a military conflict appears to be reflected in lake core data,” University of Arizona archaeologist Takeshi Inomata told Science News.

Brown University archaeologist Andrew Scherer observed that the findings “link a significant burning event at Witzna to abandonment of the site a century or more earlier than has been reported elsewhere in the Maya lowlands.”

“There is an increasing understanding that there were destructive wars throughout the Classic period, which may have resulted in declines in population numbers and economic activities,” Inomata said in a additional statement to National Geographic.

California State University archaeologist James Brady never believed that total war did not exist in the earlier period, and this study reinforces his belief.

“I was never convinced that warfare before the Terminal Classic period was only ritualized,” he said. “It must have been a fact of life from a very early time, and it often had serious consequences.”

The main consequence, of course, being the collapse of the Mayans and their civilization. Their genetic code, artifacts and ancient ruins being the only things that survive of them into modern times. As more DNA studies of South America and Central America are completed, we may find out even more about them.

Until then, researchers will have to go on digging up the knowledge they seek of this poorly understood civilization and the times in which they lived.


See what life was like for the Mayans from Weird History below:

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube


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