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Books: Demise of the Maya Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

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A procession of warriors with captives, a common scene on Maya cylinder vases. Warfare between Maya centers may have made them vulnerable to collapse. (© Justin Kerr) [LARGER IMAGE]

Say, what happened to all those Maya anyway?" It's a question that can make the most seasoned and scholarly Mayanists flinch, yet it's the way David Webster of Pennsylvania State University starts the prologue to his new book The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Collapse (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002; $34.95). The reason the question engenders such discomfort is there is no easy answer. Rather than clarifying the cause of the Classic Maya collapse around A.D. 800, decades of excavations at hundreds of sites using the most advanced techniques and analysis have only muddied the picture, eliminating some hypotheses but generating an almost endless barrage of complex questions.

Webster sets out to make sense of the mess, arguing that we must know what collapsed before we know why. This gives him the opportunity to flood the reader with answers to other questions: Were Maya centers "cities"? How did the masses relate to the elite? What was warfare like? He evaluates the collapse theories of scholars of the last 70 years. Coupling observations made by Spaniards at the time of the conquest with the newest archaeological and epigraphic evidence, he inserts people and color into a discussion of the evolution of Maya political organization.

In a relaxed but persuasive tone, Webster creates an image of a dynamic Maya landscape dotted with dozens of independent, fragile polities, ruled by competitive kings who regularly encouraged warfare with neighbors. Each center and region of the Maya lowlands experienced the collapse differently; some sites, like El Mirador in the Petén, Guatemala, went under some 600 years before the Classic collapse, and others, like Lamanai in northern Belize, survived it. "We can now appreciate that over the long run there were many mini-collapses and times of trouble, of which the 'big' Classic collapse is only the best known and most celebrated," writes Webster.

Whether he's bringing to life Copán king Yax Pasaj, overseeing his vast kingdom on a clear morning in the eighth century A.D., or recounting dynastic warfare between the rival kingdoms of Tikal and Caracol, Webster casts events and actors of the Maya past in a vibrant light.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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