The collapse of the Classic Maya: A case for the role of water control

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This article focuses on the role of water control in the emergence and demise of Classic Maya political power (c. C.E. 250-950), one that scholars have long underestimated. The scale of water control correlates with the degree of political power, reflected in three levels of Maya civic-ceremonial centers - regional, secondary, and minor. Such power derives from a complex relationship among center location, seasonal water supply, amount of agricultural land, and settlement density. Maya kings monopolized artificial reservoirs and other water sources during annual drought, providing the means to exact tribute from subjects. Climate change undermined the institution of rulership when existing ceremonies and technology failed to provide sufficient water. The collapse of rulers' power at regional centers in the Terminal Classic (c. C.E. 850-950) had differing impacts on smaller centers. Secondary and minor centers not heavily dependent on water control survived the drought and the collapse of regional centers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)814-826
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican Anthropologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Classic Maya collapse
  • Political power
  • Water control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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