Extreme conflicts broke out well before the civilization’s decline, researchers say

In 697, flames engulfed the Maya city of Witzna. Attackers from a nearby kingdom in what’s now Guatemala set fires that scorched stone buildings and destroyed wooden structures. Many residents fled the scene and never returned.       

This surprisingly early instance of highly destructive Maya warfare has come to light thanks to a combination of sediment core data, site excavations and hieroglyphic writing translations, say research geologist David Wahl of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and his colleagues. Organized attacks aimed at destroying cities began during ancient Maya civilization’s heyday, when Witzna and other cities thrived in lowland regions of Central America, the scientists report August 5 in Nature Human Behavior.

WAR BURNS
WAR BURNS © FRANCISCO ESTRADA-BELLI - A fragment of an inscribed stone monument found at the Maya site of Witzna contains a dark, burned patch near its right edge. A 697 attack on Witzna left the monument broken and scorched, scientists say.

D. Wahl et alPalaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic MayaNature Human Behavior. Published online August 5, 2019.

doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0671-x.

Despite over a century of archaeological research, the nature and broader consequences of Maya warfare remain poorly understood. Classic period (250–950 CE) Maya warfare has largely been viewed as ritualized and limited in scope. Evidence of violent warfare in the Terminal Classic period (800–950 CE) is interpreted as an escalation of military tactics that played a role in the socio-economic collapse of the Classic Maya civilization. The implications of specific textual references to war events (war statements) remain unknown, however, and the paucity of field data precludes our ability to test collapse theories tied to warfare. Here we connect a massive fire event to an attack described with a Classic period war statement. Multiple lines of evidence show that a large fire occurred across the ancient city of Witzna, coincident with an epigraphic account describing an attack and burning of Witzna in 697 CE. Following this event, evidence shows a dramatic decline in human activity, indicating extensive negative impacts on the local population. These findings provide insight into strategies and broader societal impacts of Classic period warfare, clarify the war statement’s meaning and show that the Maya engaged in tactics akin to total warfare earlier and more frequently than previously thought.


K. Aoyama and E. Graham. Ancient Maya warfare: Exploring the significance of lithic variation in Maya weaponryLithics.  Vol. 362015, p. 5.

Variation in the kinds of weapons used in Maya warfare—and, one could argue in warfare in general—or the ways in which weapons were manufactured has been given scant attention as a function of diverse cultures and traditions. The results of the study described here suggest that lances (thrusting weapons with long wooden shafts and chipped stone heads) were the weapon of choice among both the Preclassic and the Classic Maya. In the Classic period, from which we have pictorial as well as other archaeological evidence, Maya elites used lances in hand-to-hand combat. Atlatl darts are also present in the Classic-period record but are not as common as lance heads. Points used as arrowheads do not appear in the Maya lowlands until the Terminal Classic, and then only in certain places. These changes do not follow a pattern that can be attributed to technological advances in resource acquisition, e.g. hunting. We discuss the increase in the production and use of atlatl darts as well as bows and arrows during the Terminal Classic period, which we argue reflects cultural change in the practices of warfare. We go further to hypothesise that changing warfare practices were one symptom of the cultural destabilisation that led to the demise of Classic Maya political authority. Our paper derives from Maya research, but we think it has implications for the study of lithics more generally. Use of stone tools in the Old World, for example, is not normally associated with urbanism. The Maya example, in which neither the cultural nor technological context of urbanism involved the use of metals, can perhaps add a new social dimension to stone tool studies. With specific regard to the research described below, there is also the implication that the primary stimulus behind adoption of an artefact can be its role in competition or conflict— that is, in the socially sanctioned killing or harming of human beings—rather than its use in resource acquisition. Such a stimulus is as likely to have existed in the Palaeolithic as in the Bronze or Iron Age. 

Keywords: Maya civilisation, weapons, warfare, lances, atlatl darts, bows and arrows