Does the Maya civilization still exist today?

*Pro-tip: The correct term when talking about the cultures that lived in this region is “Maya,” not “Mayan”. A lot of people get this wrong– “Mayan” refers to the languages spoken by the people, but it doesn’t refer to the people themselves. So, we refer to the Maya culture and the Mayan language, but not reversed. Make sense?

One of the greatest misconceptions regarding the Maya culture is the “mysterious” Maya collapse. Today’s post touches briefly on what the truth is behind the Maya “collapse” and why this is a dangerous word to use.

If you’ve been alive in the past 7 years, you probably heard a lot about the Maya civilization when the world was “going to end” in 2012. That’s another post for another day (next week, anyone?), but the point is that it brought the Maya culture into the spotlight, and yet again perpetuated the idea that the Maya civilization collapsed over a thousand years ago.

The truth is, the Maya didn’t disappear. They didn’t all die out.

Towards the end of the Classic period (250 AD – 900 AD), there was a rather sudden and abrupt change in the social, political, and economic Mesoamerican world. Art styles changed, governments were altered, and large amounts of people moved from one area to the other. This led early scholars to believe that the Maya civilization had just died out. Although today we know that the issue is much more complex than that, it has been really hard to undo all of the myth and mystery that people now associate with the Maya.

Catherwood, “Main Temple at Tulum”

So, what really happened to the Maya? This is a question that scholars are still address. In fact, this February I attended an academic symposium in New Orleans completely dedicated to recent research that could help us understand what caused such dramatic shifts in society.

At that symposium, scholars agreed that “collapse” isn’t the best word for what happened to the Maya, and that, whatever that word should be, there definitely wasn’t one single factor that led to it. In fact, there were many factors, including drought, political unrest, social shifts, population growth and economic strain (among others) that led to this major change. And it’s likely that they all fed into each other to create the shift.

Today, people talk about the Maya as having “disappeared”. This is actually a really harmful idea. Here’s why:

  1. The Maya didn’t disappear. The culture underwent a shift, but the people didn’t go anywhere. In fact, in 1519, when the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they found the Maya still there, and still a powerful force to be reckoned with. In fact, they continued to rebel against Spanish forces well into the 17th and 18th centuries.
  2. When we talk about cultures “disappearing”, we erase the link between these cultures and their descendants still living today. This leads to even more discrimination of indigenous peoples who have suffered countless crimes at the hand of European colonizers. By acknowledging that these cultures continue today, we maintain that relationship and can continue to argue for equal treatment and respect for all people.

So, the next time someone brings up the Maya “collapse”, you have one more tool in your belt to explain the true story behind it all!

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