Long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico was home to the Mayan civilization, one of the greatest ancient civilisations. Mayan politics consisted of a complex web of ritualized relationships between city-states. These city-states featured dense urban areas and impressive engineering feats, with populations supported by advanced agriculture.
Technologically, the Maya were very advanced in mathematics, utilizing a base twenty numerical system and advanced astronomy, which they used to measure the length of the synodic (lunar) month with remarkable accuracy. The Mayan economy was similarly developed, managing to exploit the riches of the Yucatan without coinage or beasts-of-burden.
Aztec Calendar Stone
Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico.
Image Courtesy Library of Congress
The Aztec Calendar Stone, better known in the archaeological literature as the Aztec Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol in Spanish), is an enormous basalt disk covered with hieroglyphic carvings of calendar signs and other images referring to the Aztec creation myth.
Despite shared language, culture, and religion, the system of city-states was steeped in frequent conflict. It was this intra-civilizational competition that likely led to the decline of Coba, previously the dominant Mayan city-state in the area, well before the arrival of the Spanish.
Graphite on Paper
This scene depicts some of the natives to Coba, with their imposing temple in the background.
The Mayan religion was led by a priestly class which wielded enormous social influence. Entire cities were dedicated to the worship of certain gods, in whose name ritual human sacrifice was practiced. Mayan worship also involved the close study of the stars. In fact, the Mayans were so skilled in the science of astronomy that Mayan astronomers correctly predicted a solar eclipse that occurred on July 11, 1991, hundreds of years after the collapse of their civilization.
Coba Archeological Zone
© Eugenio Garcia Villarreal
Part of a series of digital reconstructions of Mayan pyramids, this image depicts Coba’s temple at its prime.
Linguistically, the Maya shared a common hieroglyphic writing system, often carved into the walls of buildings and monuments. These hieroglyphs remain the most notable and impressive relics left over from the Mayan limestone cities. The most prestigious of these ancient buildings are surely the giant pyramid-temples which commanded central positions in the hearts of Mayan cities. Established in approximately 600 CE, Coba boasts the Castillo and the Nohoch Mul pyramids, the latter of which is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula at 138 feet (32m). However, many Mayan city-states boasted even more impressive features above and beyond the pyramids.
Despite the absence of the wheel, the Maya constructed a vast road network, the greatest concentration of which was in Coba. These urban roads took the form of raised causeways built from the region’s white limestone. The road network of the Mayan civilization was crucial in facilitating an impressive trade network among the city-states, which in turn was a critical element in the overall success of the Mayan economy, which for a time was centered around Coba.
Coba's road system branched out to other major city-states, to minor cities, and to major Yucatan ports , such as Xelha. Mayan trade routes were so elaborate that they were able to import heavy commodities like turquoise from as far away as Arizona with no pack animals or large ships.
Depiction of nearby city Chichen Itza and its ‘Sacbe’s’
Coba has an exceptionally large road network, but all major Maya cities have road networks associated with them. These roads had two functions. The shorter ones connected the urban cores of the cities to the satellite towns that provided them with agricultural products. The longer ones plugged cities into the vast trading networks that moved goods throughout Mesoamerica.
The principal goods produced by the Maya ranged from the fruits, cocoa, cotton, and vanilla of the jungle to semi-precious stones such as jade and obsidian, used to make jewellery and weapons. Cocoa was used to make a type of hot chocolate drink commonly consumed by the Maya, which would later spread to the rest of the world.
A Maya love for chocolate
Photograph by Kenneth Garret
NAT GEO image collection.
Archaeological evidence has pointed to the first use of cacao in Mesoamerica about 3,900 years ago. Traditionally, archaeologists have assumed that Mesoamericans were the first not just to use cacao, but to cultivate it.
At its zenith, from about 250 to 900 CE, Mayan civilization consisted of about 40 cities, of which Coba was one of the most prominent. The cities ranged in population from approximately 5,000 to 50,000 people each, potentially reaching a peak total population of about two million. These cities were organized into a series of city-states, a system with similarities to Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy, in which city-states engaged in complex series of alliances, trade networks, and political competition.
The Mayan city-state’s influence on the surrounding territories was extended through control over trading routes, farmland, water resources, and religious sites, as well as military activity. The power of the city-states was reflected in the growth of their shrines and markers. The prevalence of merchants and artisans speaks to the advanced nature of the Mayan economy, despite the prevalence of subsistence agriculture. Mayan cities were home to a proper middle class.
The Mayan Collapse
In a wet period, Maya farms thrived, and an empire flowered, studies say.
Every civilization has its rise and fall. But no culture has fallen quite like the Maya Empire, seemingly swallowed by the jungle after centuries of urban, cultural, intellectual, and agricultural evolution.
There is much speculation about what caused the Classical Mayan Collapse, the term used to refer to the precipitous decline of Mayan civilization and abandonment of Mayan cities. The causes considered most likely are some combination of an overburdened agriculture system, warfare, and disrupted trade routes. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the Maya were for the most part living in villages rather than the grand cities of the past, like Coba had once been, leaving them more susceptible to subjugation by the conquistadors.
A reproduction of the murals depicting vivid scenes of Maya life around the end of the 8th century, circa 1700
Wars and warfare were important to the Maya for a variety of reasons, including subjugation of neighboring city-states, prestige, and capture of prisoners for enslavement and sacrifices.
Just like Mayan civilization writ-large, there is not a clear historical record of Coba's decline. It has been suggested that a power struggle with the city-state of Chichen Itza, as well as war with other cities, are the most likely causes of this decline. Chichen Itza was growing in power and wealth while Coba was in decline, contributing to Coba’s ultimate decline. This power struggle, and intra-Maya conflict in general, was likely motivated by the increasing scarcity of resources, including manpower. In this way, city-states like Coba lost their prestige and power. Coba leveraged its religious significance to regain some power but lost it again as trade moved towards the coast. Eventually, by the time the Spanish arrived, Coba was abandoned and like other Mayan city-states, the descendants of its inhabitants were living in nearby villages.
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