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


Despite over a century of archaeological research, the nature and broader consequences of Maya warfare remain poorly understood. Classic period (250–950 ce) Maya warfare has largely been viewed as ritualized and limited in scope1,2,3,4,5,6. Evidence of violent warfare in the Terminal Classic period (800–950 ce) is interpreted as an escalation of military tactics that played a role in the socio-economic collapse of the Classic Maya civilization7,8. The implications of specific textual references to war events (war statements) remain unknown, however, and the paucity of field data precludes our ability to test collapse theories tied to warfare. Here we connect a massive fire event to an attack described with a Classic period war statement. Multiple lines of evidence show that a large fire occurred across the ancient city of Witzna, coincident with an epigraphic account describing an attack and burning of Witzna in 697 ce. Following this event, evidence shows a dramatic decline in human activity, indicating extensive negative impacts on the local population. These findings provide insight into strategies and broader societal impacts of Classic period warfare, clarify the war statement’s meaning and show that the Maya engaged in tactics akin to total warfare earlier and more frequently than previously thought.

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Fig. 1: Map of Peten, Guatemala, showing selected archaeological sites.
Fig. 2: Epigraphic evidence of the identification of Witzna as Bahlam Jol.
Fig. 3: LEN proxy data for human activity and landscape disturbance
Fig. 4: Digital image of LEN core section from 280 to 330 cm BSWI, shown with CHAR.
Fig. 5: CHAR and non-carbonate-mineral MAR during the period of prehistoric settlement and transition to abandonment (300–1200 ce).

Data availability

All charcoal, physical property, pollen and age control data from the sediment core will be archived in the National Centers for Environmental Information Fire History database ( Archaeological reports, photographs and excavation drawings are available at Down-sampled versions of 3D models of Stelae 1 and 2, with adjustable light settings, were posted on the Sketchfab online platform: a full view of Stela 1 ( and a close-up view of its inscription (; a full view of Stela 2 ( and a close-up view of its inscription (


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This research was funded by the USGS Climate and Land Use Research and Development Program, a National Science Foundation Archaeology research grant (no. 1322775) and a University of Alabama Research Grant Committee Level 1 Grant (no. RGC-2018-14). Additional funding for fieldwork was provided by Fundación PACUNAM, the National Geographic Society and the Alphawood Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. Academic support was provided by Tulane University and the Middle American Research Institute. All required permits were granted by the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes of Guatemala. We thank L. Presnetsova, E. Broadman, M. Champagne, S. Peek, R. Byrne, M. Gross, D. Beliaev, S. Maeda, A. A. Castillo, B. G. B. Giron, K. Ahern, E. Quinac, A. Borrayo, M. Penados, W. Casasola, W. Castillo, Y. Tumax, M. Prera, A. Velazquez and A. L. Arroyave for their contributions and dedicated work. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US government.

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D.W. and L.A. collected the LEN sediment core and performed all related analyses. F.E.-B. and A.T. conducted archaeological surveys and excavations. A.T. documented and interpreted the inscriptions on Stelae 1 and 2 at Witzna. F.E.-B. conducted the hydrological analysis of the LEN watershed. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David Wahl.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–9, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary References.

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Wahl, D., Anderson, L., Estrada-Belli, F. et al. Palaeoenvironmental, epigraphic and archaeological evidence of total warfare among the Classic Maya. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1049–1054 (2019).

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