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The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse Hardcover – 8 Apr 2002

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; First UK Edition edition (8 April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500051135
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500051139
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.9 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 1.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,236,664 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'At last a well-informed, excitingly written, and thoroughly convincing solution to an age-old mystery: what caused the downfall of Classic Maya culture? Webster had drawn on his extensive and deep knowledge of world civilizations to throw light on one of history's greatest demographic tragedies' - Michael D. Coe, author of Breaking the Maya Code and Reading the Maya Glyphs. 'Eloquent, closely argued and authoritative, this is a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of one of archaeology's great mysteries. Everyone interested in the ancient Maya and in the volatility of pre-industrial civilizations should read this timely book' - Brian M. Fagan, author of The Great Journey and Floods, Famines and Emperors. 'Brilliantly evokes a period that is the mirror of our age... Webster draws on decades of fieldwork and a longstanding interest in social conflict to sketch a subtle and rich account that could not have been written even ten years ago' - Stephen Houston, author of Reading the Past: Maya Glyphs and Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya.

About the Author

David Webster is Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and the author of several books on the Maya world. He has carried out many excavations at Maya centres, including Copan, Becan and Pledras Negras.

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Format: Hardcover
Sadly, this book repeats an age old myth, that of Maya collapse due to over population and environmental issues. In short, it is not widely known, but accepted none the less, there is very little evidence for any kind of over population, dietary stress, environmental issues etc. The very few examples there are at Mayan sites occur BEFORE the rise of the classic maya, so clearly it had NO effect on the maya. Yet still, even professors, keep this myth going. A very important book to read instead is 'questioning collapses'. This covers maya and other civilisations. Remember, the Maya didn't die out, there's over 10 million living in Mexico today.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 11 reviews
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Mayanism Goes Postmodern 18 Mar. 2005
By doomsdayer520 - Published on
Format: Hardcover
David Webster is surely one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Maya, and this book is a mostly useful summary of current knowledge on that fascinating culture and its mysterious demise. Actually, the school of archeology that Webster belongs to has found, with convincing evidence, that after the classic age (ending around AD 900) the Maya did not have a sudden doomsday-like catastrophe that wiped them off the face of the Earth. Instead, slow-moving political pressures related to overpopulation and exhaustion of natural resources led to different city-states falling out of influence at different times, as the Maya very slowly transitioned into a less organized form of society. In fact Maya people still live in the area to this day and organized populations even confronted the Spanish conquistadors, but their "glory days" of huge monuments and designed cities were behind them. This is Webster's basic explanation for the "fall," and in any case he is only talking about the classic period of Maya civilization, rather than the nonsensical disappearance of millions of people.

This is all perfectly fascinating from an archeological standpoint, but the book is frustrating due to Webster's attitudes and writing style. He begins with rather condescending complaints about the supposed ignorance of the public on this subject, possibly turning off beginners who might be reading this book out of informed curiosity. Most importantly, Webster's thinking style is pure academic postmodernism, dwelling primarily on obtuse professorial abstractions like reconstructing texts and inventing historical meta-narratives. Webster spends dozens of pages arguing about the semantics of terms like "civilization" and "city," going off on tangents that will have little interest to anyone outside of professorland. And finally, a very large portion of the book consists of Webster rebutting and debunking other theories about the Maya, and his only way of proving his own theories (however believable they may be) is through a process of elimination and sheer force of will. [~doomsdayer520~]
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A very good synthesis 31 July 2002
By "artmoreau" - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Webster's book is extremely well written and should appeal to the general reader regardless of their knowledge of Mesoamerican cultures. As opposed to limiting himelf to Late Classic, he relates this to Mayan Civilization at the conquest, what is meant by the collapse of the Mayan "Civilization" and its relations to other ancient civilizations (although I think he missed the analog to the post-fall city-states of Italy and the possible implications). His evidence is excellent and his agruments eloquent. Readers looking for simple answers are warned - you will not find one answer. On the other hand, for those who want a well-thought out argument by a researcher steeped in the Mayan culture, this is your book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Non-technical agrarian economies can't escape Malthus' observations 26 Dec. 2007
By Douglas E. Libert - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Webster's book seems as if it was a reaction to downgrade the latest "fad" theory on the demise of the Maya,specifically the "Superdrought" theory and I must admit he succeeds well.First he defines what period of Mayan history he is adressing reminding the reader that anyone attempting to explain "the Ancient Mayans" must be very careful on the use of dates and phases as well as geographic locations since Mayan influence encompassed thousands of square miles with radically different climates.Here's some beef,(which Mayans never ate),according to Webster, the Mayans were comprised of 80% peasantry and their diet about 70-80% maize. The time period that Webster addresses is the aprox. 7-8th centuries AD when the "Ancient" Maya and their warrior/priest hierarchy ,complete with the grandiose building projects,collapsed in a span of about 2 centuries.
The chapter I particularly enjoyed was "Many Kingdoms,Many Fates" where Webster breaks down and analyzes the different Mayan cities and puts them in chronological order.Alot of these ruins are separated by hundreds of years and the evidence shows most of them were in conflict with one another over status and influence.In short,Webster offers no "one theory" explain it all solution,but numerous interconnected reasons for the collapse.
Alot of these Mayan cities reached populations that could have been as high as 20,000 then suddenly became more or less,"ghost towns".So what happened according to Webster. He basically says that Mayan agrarian success set the stage for the collapse.The populations of these cities grew to a point where the agrarian economy could not support the urban and outlying residents.As it was,the Mayan cities were "very fragile economies" and as the population grew,nevermind a megadrought,just a simple one month drought could be devastating.Remember the Mayan did not have the plow,or the wheel,and was strictly labor intensive.Webster invests alot of effort in describing what agrarian technologies the Mayans had and which techniques they were sadly lacking in.If you're looking for a simple one theory explanation,this wouldn't be your book.Simply put the Mayan peasantry lost faith in their warrior/priests and left the cities abandoned as they could no longer support a growing urban population.I take it from reading Websters book that "no tears were shed" in regret as they packed up with their empty bellies.While it doesn't say so in the book,I figure that the ecological refugees took along the "best" of the urban culture,such as the art,medicine,and rituals and discarded alot of practices they disagreed with.Thereby,moving into a new phase.I've heard this same phrase so many times to explain a lost civilization.They're never "lost" but just move into another phase,hopefully a better one!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Why was Tikal abandoned? 16 April 2007
By Smallchief - Published on
Format: Hardcover
About 800 A.D. the great classical Mayan centers in the Petun region of northern Guatemala and southern Yucatan were suddenly abandoned, never to recover. Maya civilization continued, in a reduced form, in the northern Yucatan which is where the Spanish discovered the Mayas in the early 16th century.

If you're going to name the seven wonders of the world -- as some magazine is doing -- the spectacular Mayan ruin of Tikal should be on the list. The jungles around Tikal, the greatest of all the classical Mayan cities, are uncongenial to a large human population and the mystery has always been how the Maya were able to create a civilization in such an environment and why the civilization after six centuries disappeared suddenly. The author examines about a dozen different theories as to why Tikal, Copan, and other Mayan centers abruptly ceased to be populated.

This is a book that begins slowly and gets better as you progress. I zipped through the first few chapters, which included long definitions of civilization, urbanization, etc. and finally began to get interested with chapter Six (page 178) in which the author finally gets down to discussing what he promised: the decline and fall of Maya civilization. The remainder of the book is good. The author discusses the factors that led to the decline of Tikal, Copan, La Milpa and other centers. I won't reveal his conclusions -- other than to say that he comes down heavily on environmental degradation. That is in accord with current popular and politically-correct wisdom on the subject.

The book is complemented by a number of good photographs drawings and graphs, and ample maps showing the locations of the many, many Mayan ruins in Middle America. Unfortunately, our understanding of the Maya will always be deficient because of the destruction of nearly all their written records and culture by their Spanish overlords. Our assumptions and conclusions regarding this mysterious civilization may be wrong -- and the paucity of solid data gives rein to the most interesting of speculations.

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
The Maya Fall ... and Our Own? 6 July 2004
By Tom Andres - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Like many a good scientist, David Webster demythologizes with facts knowing that detailed scientific fact is often more fascinating than myth.
Webster tells of the 'Maya myth' growing out of the first discoveries of the mysterious vine-covered ruins, with their "vacant ceremonial centers," ruins that create the eerie impression of a civilization abandoned almost overnight. By the 1940s the Classic Lowland Maya had "become a kind of intellectual Shangri-La for our wishful thinking about the past and about the human condition."
A big part of the myth was that of the 'peaceful Maya,' a wishful notion that became awkward to maintain after archeologists inconveniently began to uncover extensive military fortifications.
But myth is stubborn. Webster recalls that once on a flight to one of his archeological sites he ran across an airline magazine article with the typical popular emoting, telling how the Maya had 'built palaces with 100 or more rooms, while Europeans lived in mud huts.' The problem is, Webster points out, that while many Europeans lived in mud huts, so did most Maya, and that the advanced civilizations of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans pre-dated that of the Classic Maya.
Political correctness always tends to patronize and diminish those groups it intends to uplift. Surely the Maya achieved enough--the art, the architecture, the hieroglyphics, the socially complex kingdoms, the extensive agricultural economy, all accomplished in an equatorial environment-to make exaggeration unnecessary. (Obviously any new information that might be uncovered showing the Maya more, or less, "advanced" than presently believed should be welcomed as helping to further puzzle out the truth.)
It turns out that even the Maya "collapse" is something of a myth. Webster reminds us that the Classic Maya were part of a larger culture that continues today, and that there were several geographically separate kingdoms that experienced "mini-collapses" long before the final fall.
Webster also answers PC academicians who charge that the whole concept of societal evolution, of simpler societies evolving into more complex or advanced ones, is really just ethnocentric racist Social Darwinism attempting to excuse the West's exploitation of traditional cultures: "More than a century of archaeological research in many parts of the world has documented something very much like ... cultural evolution." Politically correct politics aside, Webster writes, "Cultural evolution, like biological evolution, is a fact, how ever it happens, whether we like it or not, and despite whatever lessons we wish to learn from it."
Webster lists some of the characteristics of collapsing civilizations: Less stratification; less political centralization; less regimentation; decreased exchanges of information and resources; population decline; settlement abandonment; diminished production of Great Tradition components; invasions; diminished confidence in or even rejection of collectively held ideas and values ... (Hmm, last few sound familiar.)
Population decline and growth seem particularly tricky. Even when massive population growth is on the eve, historically speaking, of overwhelming a society's natural-resource base, soon to bring about economic, political and population collapse, to those who are experiencing the final "boom," population growth must seem an open-ended blessing. One thinks of today's continual press characterizations of our Third-World-like post-1965 immigration-generated population growth as being merrily "robust."
One of the many strengths of this book is that Webster seems to have no ideological ax to grind. He systematically takes his readers through the various past attempts at explaining the Maya collapse, from monument construction being too burdensome on peasants, to the disintegration of trade networks, and shows many of them to be wanting.
So what did happen to the Maya? Read this very fine book.
Finally, any volume devoted to civilizational collapse, particularly such an outstanding one as this, is doubly interesting to those who are concerned about the decline of our own civilization.
A big part of the problem for the Maya was environmental, and the environmental Malthusian warning bells are with us today, in fact, ear-shatteringly so. But what do we make of political elites of European-based nations, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and of course Europe itself, who view their rapid replacement by people of some other cultural, ethnic, or racial stock, through immigration and offspring, as not only acceptable, but as fulfilling some glittering vision of the future, or as one Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner gushed, "a wonderful transformation"?
Of course, what happened to the Maya only parallels some of our own dysfunctions, but one seemingly bizarre category of civilizational collapse cataloged separately by Webster catches the eye: a collapse brought about by "ideological pathology."
This is illustrated by the case of the African Xhosa.
"Late in the summer of 1856 the Xhosa, a Bantu-speaking people of southeast Africa, began to methodically kill their cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and foul. They also consumed or threw away all the grain in their storage bins and stopped preparations to plant crops." These things were not done grudgingly, but in celebration. Why?
They had listened to the prophecies of a girl who claimed to hear messages from beyond, telling her that once her people had stripped themselves down to nothing "the world would be reborn." Of course what actually happened was that "untold thousands starved" in one of the "greatest self-inflected immolation in all of history."
The case of the Xhosa "shows that under extraordinary circumstances whole societies can virtually will themselves out of existence."
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