Ancient Maya Attacked and Burned Down a City During Peak of Civilization in 'Act of Total War'

The ancient Maya appear to have engaged in extreme violent warfare long before previously thought, with evidence to suggest it attacked and burned down a prosperous city during the peak of the civilization.

In a study published in Nature Human Evolution, researchers led by David Wahl from the U.S. Geological Survey looked at an ancient hieroglyphic inscription found at Naranjo—a Maya city that was located 20 miles south of Witzna, in what is now northern Guatemala. The text reveals a series of successful military campaigns against a neighbouring kingdom, including one called Bahlam Jol, which once belonged to Naranjo. The inscriptions says that the city "burned for the second time."

This attack, researchers say, took place in May, 697 AD—a year after another kingdom, Komkom, was also burned down. The text also documents the conquests of the kingdoms of K'inchil and K'an Witznal in 698 AD.

These events all took place during the Classic Maya period (250 to 900 AD), when the civilization was thriving and expanding. Previously, it was thought this era was defined by its prosperity and sophistication—they developed extensive trade networks, studied the stars and created advanced calendars. Violence during this period, experts believed, was largely confined to rituals.

Violence and war started to become more prominent in the Terminal Classic Period, between 800 and 950 AD. This is thought to have coincided with the decline of the civilization, as overpopulated cities and drought led to wars that would eventually lead to its collapse.

However, a new picture of a more violent Maya is starting to emerge, with researchers now finding increasing evidence to suggest they engaged in wars for political control over resources and people. Archaeological sites across Mesoamerica show evidence of warfare, with battlements, weapon manufacturing and hieroglyphs all pointing to violent encounters.

In the latest study, Wahl and colleagues looked at physical evidence to support the hieroglyph claims of a city burned. By analyzing sediments in a lake near the site, the team was able to look back 1,700 years. Within this, they found "a distinct charcoal layer" that they were able to date to the end of the seventh century.

This layer suggests there was a huge fire—by far the largest that took place in the region over the two centuries. The date coincides with the hieroglyphic record of Bahlam Jol burning down.

Following the fire, the team found there was a "dramatic reduction" in local land use, indicating a decrease in population. "The synchronicity of the large charcoal deposit and the 'burned' statement on Naranjo's Stela 22 provide strong evidence that the sedimentary charcoal was produced by fires that razed Bahlam Jol on 21 May 697," they wrote.

"The decreased rate and magnitude of erosion subsequent to the attack indicate widespread abandonment…Naranjo's attack on Bahlam Jol appears to have destroyed the site and severely impacted the local population. As such, it can be described as an act of total war."

They conclude the findings suggest violent warfare was not limited to the end of the Classic period and that it arose from environmental stresses like drought. "The objectives of war were not limited to capturing high-status victims for ransom or sacrifice, but included inflicting prohibitive infrastructural and human costs on the other kingdoms," the study says. "As with many aspects of Maya civilization, we continue to realize that the pre-Hispanic Maya were more complex than previously thought."

Elizabeth Graham, a Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the University College London, who was not involved in the study, said the researchers have a "good argument" for a change in warfare—but added that she does not know how frequent extensive burning was. She told Newsweek her own research indicates a change in the rules of engagement around the ninth century AD, and that she does not "agree that warfare was more 'ritualized' earlier on since all war is ritual, including ours today."

Wahl said the team is now hoping to study more "large fire events" from the same period in Maya history that correspond with military activity. "We don't have the 'smoking gun' of a written account, but we are currently assessing ways to explore the possibility that these events may represent military activity," he told Newsweek.

"Along with fleshing out, as much as we can, the implications of the other large fire events mentioned above, we are also currently developing several paleoclimate datasets from the sediment core. The aim is to produce a climate reconstruction that will provide much needed data on the possible role of drought in the abandonment of the southern Maya lowlands."

This article has been updated to include comments from David Wahl and Elizabeth Graham.

Correction 8/08 3.00 a.m. The original article said the Maya civilization lived in South America. This has been changed to Mesoamerica.

Pyramid of Kukulcan
Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chich'en Itza, Mexico. Researchers have discovered the Maya civilization engaged in violent warfare earlier than previously thought. iStock