Evidence of extreme warfare tactics in the Maya lowlands, during a time described as a peak in prosperity and artistic sophistication, is described in a paper published online this week in Nature Human Behaviour. This research suggests that the Maya engaged in violent warfare that resulted in widespread destruction of a city much earlier than previously thought.
Maya warfare during the Classic period (250 - 950 CE) has been viewed as ritualized and limited in scope. However, scholars have interpreted evidence of violent warfare in the Terminal Classic Period (800 - 950 CE) as an escalation that catalysed the collapse of the Maya civilization.
David Wahl and colleagues find that the Maya engaged in total warfare much earlier than the Terminal Classic Period. The authors analysed a hieroglyphic inscription found at Naranjo - a Classic Maya city south of Witzna in what is now northern Guatemala - which states that on 21 May 697 CE, Witzna was attacked and burned for a second time. They then linked this inscription to paleoenvironmental evidence from a lake adjacent to Witzna that has a distinct charcoal layer resulting from a substantial fire event during the last decade of the 7th century CE. Archaeological evidence also supported this link, as evidenced by widespread destruction and burning of the major monuments across Witzna. Sediment analysis shows a dramatic reduction of land use following this fire event, which suggests the attack had severe negative impacts on the population of Witzna.
The authors suggest that these findings challenge theories that extreme violent warfare was limited to the Terminal Classic Period and that it developed as a result of environmental stress and increased competition for limited resources.