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Paleoenvironmental, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya

August 5, 2019

Despite over a century of archaeological research, the nature and broader consequences of Classic Maya warfare remain poorly understood. Based on frequent epigraphic references and iconographic themes, Classic period (250-950 CE) Maya warfare has largely been viewed as ritualized and limited in scope. Evidence of warfare in the Terminal Classic period (TCP, 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. Implications of specific textual references to war events remain unknown, however, and the paucity of field data precludes our ability to test collapse theories tied to warfare. Here we present geoarchaeological evidence of a large fire event and connect it to a battle described with a Classic period war statement (puluuy), clarifying its meaning and providing insight into the strategies and impacts of Maya warfare. Multiple lines of evidence show that a massive fire occurred across the ancient city of Witzna during the last decade of the 7th century CE, coincident with a written account of Witzna’s burning by the kingdom of Naranjo in 697 CE. Following this event human activity at Witzna declined dramatically, indicating the battle had broad societal impacts. Puluuy is a commonly occurring war statement, and these findings show that the Maya engaged in tactics akin to total warfare earlier and more frequently than previously thought. This research provides insights into the broad societal impacts of Classic period warfare and necessitates a reevaluation of the role of warfare in the Maya collapse.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title Paleoenvironmental, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya
DOI 10.1038/s41562-019-0671-x
Authors David Wahl, Lysanna Anderson, Francisco Estrada-Belli, Alexandre Tokovinine
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Nature
Index ID 70204599
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Minerals, Energy, and Geophysics Science Center