Scientific analysis of changes in trading patterns offers a New Perspective on the Fall of Inland Mayan Centers in Mesoamerica 1,000 Years Ago. Archaeologists, history buffs and the media have been puzzled for decades about this important historical process, called 'the mayan collapse«.
Field Museum Curator of Anthropology Gary Feinman explains: “Our research suggests that changing patterns of trade were central to causing the Maya collapse.”. According to him, the new analysis casts doubt on the idea that climate change was the main cause, considering that some Mayan centers, which flourished after the fall, found in the driest parts from the Mayan region. That's where other factors appear like the fractures in leadership and war, but scientists now think that the key factor was the exchange networks.
The Mayans did not have the metal tools, so they especially appreciated the obsidian stone (or volcanic glass) for their sharp edges that could be used as cutting instruments. Mayan lords and other elites held power by controlling access to obsidian. These landowners they used it to get other important goods or they sent it as a gift to foster relationships with other Mayan leaders.
Researchers at the Field Museum have been able to establish that, before the fall of the interior Mayan centers, obsidian tended to flow through navigable river networks. But over time, this material began to be transported through coastal commercial networks, with a corresponding increase in the importance of said area against the detriment of the inland centers.
But the change in trade could have involved more materials, in addition to obsidian. The researcher and director of the “Analysis of Social Networks” (SNA), Mark Golitko, argues that other valuables for interior centers they were also disappearing little by little. The researchers collected information on obsidian stone collected in the Mayan areas. Adding this information to the chemical analysis, they have managed to identify the origin of the stones.
Total, obsidians have been identified belonging to Guatemala, to various places in central Mexico and to Honduras.
The researchers generated data from each of the four periods of the Mayan Empire: Classic (250-800 AD), Terminal Classic (800-1050 AD), Early Postclassic (1050-1300 AD) and Late Postclassic (1300-1520 AD). By using SNA software, researchers have been able to develop maps illustrating the sites that had the same or similar percentages of each type of obsidian in each of the four time periods. These percentages were then used to infer the structure of the network, through which obsidian was transported by the Mayan Empire.
A comparison of the resulting maps shows that Classic period networks are found in the interior, in low-lying areas near rivers, especially in what is now the northern part of Guatemala, the Mexican state of Chiapas, southern Yucatan, Belize, and the west. However, maps carrying data from later time periods show that internal networks decreased in importance in front of the coastal networks, that were prospering in what today is the north of Yucatan and the coast of Belize.
According to Golitko, the SNA data is a very visual way to imagine the general distribution of the nets that carried the obsidian. In addition, the researcher points out that the consequences of the interruption of the obsidian supply to the interior parts of the Mayan region is "a lesson for the increasingly connected world" in which we live today.
Feinman rates the study results as significant: «Using SNA to display and analyze graphical obsidian data gives us a new perspective on this data, some of which has been around for years.«. But, since the study does not address the question of why transport networks began to change, the scientist explains that there could have been military issues that made inland river routes less safe or user-friendly. The researcher also added that during this period maritime transport could have become more efficient with the use of large canoes.
Passionate about History, he has a degree in Journalism and Audiovisual Communication. Since he was little he loved History and ended up exploring the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries above all.