Sunday, August 29, 2010

Archaeologists find new clues why the Maya left

Bird calls ring from the forest, echoing amid the crumbling ruins whose darkened doorways have long beckoned explorers and scholars.

The Maya ancients who built the ruins of Kiuic (kee-week) here fled those doorways in a hurry, an international archaeology team now realizes. Left behind may be frozen-in-time clues to the fabled collapse of their civilization.

"Why did they leave? That's the question," says archaeologist George Bey of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. The ancient Maya fled Kiuic, nestled in the Puuc (pook) foothills of the Yucatan, around 880. "Things were going full-bore, construction was underway. And things stopped," Bey says.

Archaeologists have explored Kiuic's ruins for more than a century, but working since 2000, Bey and colleagues are now reporting the first evidence of this rapid abandonment. USA TODAY was invited to the site to see what has been uncovered in the latest excavations.

The "classic" Maya peopled the lowland forests of Central America during Europe's Dark Ages, building a civilization of pyramids, palaces and slash-and-burn "milpa" farms made by burning trees and planting seeds in the ash. Maya rulers oversaw city-states that warred with one another, created elaborate calendars and lasted centuries. The abandonment of those monument-strewn centers stands as one of archaeology's most-debated mysteries. The "collapse" was underway in modern-day Guatemala by 800, but didn't take place at Kiuic until almost a century later.

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