The History of Mathematics

Mesopotamian Numbers and Mathematics

What happened to the Mayans?

The Mayans were one of the most advanced civilizations of prehistory—one that excelled at many mathematically-related subjects as architecture, astronomy, and an elaborate hieroglyphic language. This culture, located in what is today’s southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and some of Honduras, rose around 250 C.E. and collapsed around 900 C.E. Not everyone agrees on the reason for the Mayan demise, but there are many guesses, most of them a combination of events. Over the years, theories have ranged from a disastrous disease that killed off the civilization, to a natural disaster (such as an earthquake or small asteroid strike). Such a disaster would have killed off enough of the population and caused starvation—mainly because the land would be unusable after the event(s).

Another theory proposes that the Mayan people may have overused the resources of their region, which had a direct (and irreparable) affect on the surrounding ecology. The best evidence for this has only recently been found. Scientists examining the many Mayan ruins believe that by 800 C.E., the people had cut down most of the surrounding trees to build large cities and monuments—after all, the Mayans had one of the densest populations in prehistory. Similar to today’s Amazon rainforest—and even modern day Guatemala—cutting down trees most likely (and dramatically) changed the local climate, causing not only extensive erosion of the soils, but also droughts. The results were a massive migration of people away from the Mayan cities and the eventual collapse of the civilization.


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