If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Cycles of Collapse in Mesoamerica

Some of our best fantasy stories are of lost worlds that thrived, then vanished. Mesoamerican societies left us clues large and small, and their stories make a compelling mystery for historians.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. The Aztecs who found Teotihuacan’s ruins were also the ones who named the ancient city. What does the name mean, and why did they choose it?
  2. How were Teotihuacan and the cities of the Maya Classic Period similar?
  3. How were Teotihuacan and the cities of the Maya Classic Period different?
  4. Why does the absence of a writing system make it hard to determine why an empire falls?
  5. Why does the author argue that it’s difficult to pin the “collapse” of a society on one single cause?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How does evidence from Teotihuacan and Maya societies contribute to your understanding of what “collapse” means, and what might happen after societies collapse?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Cycles of Collapse in Mesoamerica

A photo of great stone structures on a green, tree covered hillside
By Alejandro Quintana
Some of our best fantasy stories are of lost worlds that thrived, then vanished. Mesoamerican societies left us clues large and small, and their stories make a compelling mystery for historians.


The territory we call Mesoamerica includes most of today's Mexico; all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador; northern Honduras; and a stretch along the Pacific coast as far south as Costa Rica. Its diverse ecology ranges from the mile-high, arid plateaus of central Mexico down to the swamplands of the south, nearly at sea level. Mesoamerica contained the most complex societies prior to the arrival of Europeans. It reached its highest level of cultural development between 200 and 650 CE. This Classic Period includes Teotihuacan and several Maya city-states among its most significant urban centers. However, between 650 and 900 CE, they lost cultural, political and commercial predominance, as well as the majority of their population. Historians and archaeologists agree that these urban centers collapsed. However, they still debate the causes, and whether the collapse was a sudden failure or a gradual downsizing.
Map shows the territory that was Mesoamerica. It is between the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean, connecting parts of Central America and Mexico
Map of the territory known as Mesoamerica. Public domain.


Teotihuacan—say it with me: TAY-OH-TI-WAH-CAHN—is located about 30 miles north of modern Mexico City. People first settled this area around 400 BCE. The city probably began as a humble center of pilgrimage, where the merchants of Mesoamerica gathered for religious festivities for the blessing of their trade.
By 550 CE, with over 150,000 people, it had become a cosmopolitan metropolis. It was the most populous urban center in the Western Hemisphere and among the largest in the world. The city had become the political and commercial engine of Mesoamerica. It had multistory residential buildings with central courtyards organized in neighborhoods according to trade or ethnicity. You could walk the city streets listening to the local language, Nahuatl, along with dozens of other tongues from the wider reaches of Mesoamerica, such as Zapotec, Otomí and Maya.
Teotihuacan elites were rich and powerful. The city shows luxurious and roomy palaces located along the avenue and decorated with colorful low reliefs (carvings) in their courtyards and gardens. We do not know if the rulers shared the same ethnicity, but most spoke an earlier form of Nahuatl, the language spoken much later in the Aztec Empire. Throughout the centuries many ruling families (or dynasties) and other political factions fought for control of the city.
Panoramic photograph of impressive, pyramid-like structures that made up Teotihuacan
Panoramic view from the summit of the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun on the far left. By Rene Trohs, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Although Teotihuacan is a world-renowned archaeological site (in a city now called San Juan Teotihuacan), we know very little of its history. We do not even know what its inhabitants called it. When the Aztecs found this city's astonishing ruins six centuries after its debatable "collapse," they called it teotihuacán, meaning "the place where the gods were created." Because what else could explain such monumental buildings, signs of an advanced and influential culture, with a mysterious past? Its most distinctive feature is the mile-long avenue lined with dozens of temples and palaces. Called the "Avenue of the Dead," it includes the city's three major pyramids. On the south end, there is the pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), probably a monument honoring the death of a strong ruler. Further north is the Temple of the Sun, the third-largest pyramid in the world (after Cholula in Mexico and Khufu in Egypt). The pyramid of the Moon closes the north end of the avenue.

The Mayas

Unlike Teotihuacan, Classic Mayas didn't pour everything into one powerful metropolis. Rather, they were a composition of several strong cities, connected to each other by their shared culture. The cities of the Maya Classic Period were centered in today's Guatemala, stretching across the borders of Mexico, Belize and Honduras. Its cities, such as Tikal, Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxilán and Copán, have some of the most beautifully decorated monuments in pre-Columbian Americas.
The function of these urban centers was administrative and ceremonial, rather than residential. They housed only the elite and all the people needed to support their power and dominant culture. This included priests, military leaders, scribes, artisans, architects, sculptors, painters, musicians, dancers and others. Traders were also essential to the elite. They provided the luxury items showing their high status, such as feathers, animal pelts, jade, obsidian and more. Their palaces often featured a bench where the king would dispense justice, receive tribute, entertain ambassadors, and host public rituals and ceremonies.
Photo of a field, surrounded by a great stone staircase. Above it are stone buildings.
East Court, Copan, Honduras, By Steven dosRemedios, CC BY-ND 2.0.
The peasants lived outside the city, in the field. Their lives were much less fancy. Their thatched roof huts were built on top of earth mounds both to be safe from the summer floods and to bury their family members. The work of peasants fed the urban population and also provided labor and military service to the ruling class. Peasants created farmlands by cutting trees and burning the lower vegetation. This slash-and-burn technique is extremely wasteful because it quickly erodes the land and only produces crops for one or two years. Interestingly, this society was able to create a much more sustainable agricultural system. With a massive labor organization, they engineered terraces and chinampas (sometimes called "floating gardens") with irrigation and fertilization systems.

The collapse of classic Mesoamerica

As you know from Era 4, the word "collapse" is tricky when you're talking about an empire. It's hard to know when, why and if a complex society really collapsed. Certainly, all societies appear to have a beginning, middle and end. But just like stories, there are sequels and spin-offs. Scholars like to look for that single event that destroyed a particular society, like a volcano, a disease or an invasion. It is more plausible, however, that several factors ended the story of a particular society or empire.
Indeed, it is probably because we know so little of the collapses of Teotihuacan and the Mayas that they have been the source of many myths and legends. Teotihuacan had no writing system, so there are no surviving stories of heroes fighting tyrants or a king heading a golden era. There are no epics of invading armies, or tales of what angered the gods and what people did to appease them. Without a written record, we can only read the city's ruins, using archaeological interpretations of skeletons and broken pottery.
Some scholars say the collapse of Teotihuacan was the result of a war, possibly the conflict with rival cities Xochicalco and Cacaxtla. Certainly, the remains of Teotihuacan show signs of violence. There are smashed images and buildings, scars of fire, and evidence of bodies showing signs of a violent end. Yet, violence itself is not a sign of collapse. About three centuries earlier, for example, the people of Teotihuacan burned and defaced their own Quetzalcoatl Pyramid—the Feathered Serpent one we mentioned earlier. But the city did not decline. Trashing the pyramid probably marked a change of dynasties or the overthrow of a weak ruler.
A photo of a broken sculpture. Part of it has fallen over into a body of water, and a deer-like animal is leaping over the water.
Broken Idol at Copan from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by Frederick Catherwood. public domain.
However, around 650 CE it looks like the city experienced new violence. Soon after, Teotihuacan began to lose its dominance in Mesoamerica, so some call this the collapse. But if violence did not cause collapse in the third century, how can we say it was the sole cause this time around? Other factors—overpopulation, droughts and internal political divisions, which may have limited the city's capacity to resist an invasion or internal strife—could easily have played a part. Regardless, the city's cultural legacy continued inspiring other peoples. So much so, that, 600 years later, the Aztecs named it "the place where the gods were created."
The end of the Maya society somewhat later is another fascinating story. People are mesmerized by the idea of this majestic society inexplicably collapsing, its beautiful architecture and monuments swallowed by luscious jungle. Unlike Teotihuacan, the Mayas had a written system. So we know the names of their kings, the exact year they came to power, and when they fought wars. These stories are carved in their monuments, but they reveal nothing about their collapse around 900 CE. Books might have offered better clues, and the Maya left many behind. But in 1562, a Spanish friar named Diego de Landa burned every Maya book he could find. The few surviving books say nothing about their latter years, feeding into the narrative of a mysterious collapse.
Wait, did we say collapse? Because actually, new Maya city-states continued being built until the Spaniards arrived, and hundreds of Maya communities still exist today. Certainly, these communities never returned to the splendor of the Classic period, but in some ways the story is still being written.
Whatever happened in Mesoamerica between 650 and 900 CE, we know that people began to abandon its most significant urban centers. It was the end of an era, certainly, but the society didn't vanish. We can tell the ruling class lost its capacity to rule. People abandoned the magnificent ceremonial centers, temples and pyramids that represented those in power. Yet the people continued to exist, as did their culture and their costumes. To some, it's a crude imitation of past greatness, but to others it is a way to celebrate the human potential to create a society so glorious that it looks like "the place where the gods were created."
Author bio
Alejandro Quintana is an associate professor of History at St. John’s University in New York City. His research and teaching focus on state formation, nation-building, nationalism, revolutions and social movements in Latin America with a special emphasis on Mexico.

Want to join the conversation?