Mayan Civilization

Paragraph 1

In The Dynamics of Apocalypse, John Lowe attempts to solve the mystery of the collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization. Lowe bases his study on a detailed examination of the known archaeological record. Like previous investigators, Lowe relies on dated monuments to construct a step-by-step account of the actual collapse. Using the erection of new monuments as a means to determine a site’s occupation span, Lowe assumes that once new monuments ceased to be built, a site had been abandoned. Lowe’s analysis of the evidence suggests that construction of new monuments continued to increase between A.D. 672 and 751, but that the civilization stopped expanding geographically; new construction took place almost exclusively in established settlements. The first signs of trouble followed. Monument inscriptions indicate that between 751 and 790, long-standing alliances started to break down. Evidence also indicates that between 790 and 830, the death rate in Classic Mayan cities outstripped the birthrate. After approximately 830, construction stopped throughout the area, and within a hundred years, the Classic Mayan civilization all but vanished.

Paragraph 2

Having established this chronology, Lowe sets forth a plausible explanation of the collapse that accommodates the available archaeological evidence. He theorizes that Classic Mayan civilization was brought down by the interaction of several factors, set in motion by population growth. An increase in population, particularly within the elite segment of society, necessitated ever more intense farming. Agricultural intensification exerted stress on the soil and led to a decline in productivity (the amount of food produced through each unit of labor invested). At the same time, the growth of the elite class created increasing demands for ceremonial monuments and luxuries, diverting needed labor from the fields. The theory holds that these stresses were communicated— and amplified—throughout the area as Mayan states engaged in warfare to acquire laborers and food, and refugees fled impoverished areas. The most vulnerable states thus began to break down, and each downfall triggered others, until the entire civilization collapsed.

Paragraph 3

If there is a central flaw in Lowe’s explanation, it is that the entire edifice rests on the assumption that the available evidence paints a true picture of how the collapse proceeded. However, it is difficult to know how accurately the archaeological record reflects historic activity, especially of a complex civilization such as the Mayans’, and a hypothesis can be tested only against the best available data. It is quite possible that our understanding of the collapse might be radically altered by better data. For example, Lowe’s assumption about monument construction and the occupation span of a site might well be disproved if further investigations of Classic Mayan sites established that some remained heavily settled long after the custom of carving dynastic monuments had ceased.

Topic and Scope:

Lowe’s book about Mayan civilization; specifically, a description and analysis of Lowe’s theory concerning the collapse of Mayan civilization.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to describe and analyze Lowe’s theory about the collapse of Mayan civilization. The author’s specific main idea is that Lowe’s theory, though plausible, could be undermined by the discovery of new evidence about the downfall of Mayan civilization.


In paragraph 1, the author describes Lowe’s theory about the collapse of Mayan civilization. Essentially, that theory is based on archaeological evidence. According to Lowe, the decline of Mayan civilization can be traced by looking at where monuments were built and what was inscribed on them. To this point in the passage, the author is content to summarize Lowe’s views; she doesn’t advance any of her own views about Lowe’s theory. Nevertheless, it’s predictable that she’s going to do so in subsequent paragraphs. Most non-science passages, after all, go beyond mere description, to make some sort of argument.

paragraph 2 delivers on the prediction. In the first sentence, the author argues that Lowe’s theory is “plausible” because it fits the available archaeological evidence. The author then goes on to discuss additional details of Lowe’s theory, which is based on the notion that population growth set off a chain reaction of events that eventually culminated in the downfall of Mayan civilization.

In paragraph 3, the author offers a criticism of Lowe’s theory. She doesn’t take issue with his view per se. Rather, she notes that his explanation could turn out to be bogus. Archaeological evidence, she goes on, isn’t definitive; and new evidence about Mayan civilization— evidence that could undermine Lowe’s theory—might one day come along.

The Big Picture:

  • This passage is a classic book review passage. On Test Day, you will most likely see a book review passage. If you do, keep in mind that book review passages tend to have a very particular structure: the author first summarizes the book’s contents and then offers praise/criticism of the book.
  • In book review passages, it’s very important to distinguish between the author’s view and that contained in the book. Many of the questions will test to see that you can distinguish between the two. 

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