Human Journey

Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?

The “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala brought together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can still be a part of the conversation, commenting on this post or tweeting using #5Civilizations.

On the final day of the conference, after two days of individual presentations on ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Maya, all the presenters and hosts sat together on stage to discuss the nature of civilization and what we can apply today from the lessons of yesterday, or as the tagline for the Dialogue put it, how to view “the past as a window to the future.” Two days later, sitting on top of Temple IV in Tikal, looking out over the city’s ruins and miles and miles of jungle canopy, the group engaged in another conversation, centered around the collapse of civilizations.

Pulling from both of those, and the experience of recapping the presentations in these blog posts, here are the main questions and themes that seemed to arise from the Dialogue. Leaving the conference there was a distinct feeling that this was simply the beginning of the conversation. Keep it going in the comments below.

Part 1: What Is “Civilization”?

Part 2: Why Did Ancient Civilizations Build Such Huge Monuments?

Part 3: Is Every Civilization Destined to Collapse?

The archaeologists of the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations discuss the meaning of "collapse" from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)
The archaeologists of the 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations discuss the meaning of “collapse” from the top of Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)


When the discussion turned to the “collapse” of civilizations, it was clear that this is another example where clear definitions are key. “Collapse” has specific implication of “imploding” under its own weight or mismanagement or something. For example, while the Classic Maya may have “collapsed,” the Post-Classic Maya were conquered by the Spanish, and had their monuments destroyed or forced into neglect. Even then, to have a civilization conquered is not necessarily to have it end.

A civilization might also collapse or end while the culture behind it continues in some ways. And then there’s the question of how long all of that might take. “We all know there’s no such thing as a sudden collapse,” said moderator Chris Thornton. “People don’t disappear. They move, they change.” Giorgio Buccellati said he simply prefers “to speak of a broken tradition.” In these situations, while no one may be building any new temples, you still have farmers working the same plot of land, speaking the same language, celebrating the same holidays, etc.

Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller got more specific, talking about little traditions, such as folksongs, and big traditions such as architecture of a temple. “Little traditions are more likely to persist,” he said. “Big traditions, more likely to collapse.” In that framework, a good portion of the culture can continue, and possibly lead to the resuscitation of the rest of it after a period of latency. “But if it doesn’t come back, that’s collapse.”

Richard Hansen said that “in the case of the [end of the Classic era] Maya, even the rural populations are leaving. They walked away for ever.” He sees that break in continuity as the key to collapse: “There’s a degeneration or a destruction of a system or organization that renders it impossible to return for an extended period of time.”

Tomas Barrientos took the specific example of droughts. Many theories hold that drought was what caused the collapse of the Maya or Angkor, or what have you. Barrientos sees it differently. “Drought doesn’t destroy society, it affects people and a society dealing with many things… We must remember [the Maya period of] collapse is 1500 years. It’s a very long period.”

He then put it into the context of modern efforts to change cultural behavior, for example to limit the burning of fossil fuels. “Sometimes we want sudden changes,” he said, “but we’ve learned today changes are gradual.”


Lessons for Our Time

Having studied the Harappan civilization for 30 years, Mark Kenoyer is very familiar with the complex issues that contribute to the decline of a civilization, and to the long term effects that a group has on itself through its use of nearby resources and its overall impact on the surrounding environment. When dealing with modern groups dealing with these same issues, he can get a bit exasperated. “I tell them this is not the first time this has happened! This is not the first population explosion or deforestation. Look at Baluchistan, Afghanistan. They were deforested 3000 BC, 100 BC, and they have not recovered yet. We can do the same thing and it’ll take 10,000 years for the land to recover. [We must] learn the lesson and then figure out how to have a balance.”

Dorian Fuller added that as people who have studied the impact of civilizations on the environment (and vice versa), archaeologists have a special store of knowledge that can contribute to modern environmental assessments and debates. “Past cycles of land use created our current world,” he said. “Climate scientists assume no human impact before recently,” but through changes in oxygen, CO2, and methane levels through the large-scale agriculture and animal husbandry we’ve been doing, “we have had impacts for thousands of years.” To most accurately evaluate the dynamics today, we need to better understand the dynamics of the past.

Tomas Barrientos then took a long term view of the rise and fall of all civilizations. “All the achievements are a result of an ideology,” he said. “When we study the civilizations of the past we discover there is an ideology behind it all, and this is very closely related to identity. When we look at the modern world [we think,] what is our current identity? Our current ideology? I believe [given] today’s lack of an ideology where we know our identity individually, how can we go forward? We need to know where we come from so we know where we are headed. If our ideology is just to have a phone and a computer, and as long as my sports team wins, I have all that I need, then our destiny is almost written.”

The conversation continues as the archaeologists look out on the miles of conserved forest protecting the ancient site. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)
The conversation continues as the archaeologists look out on the miles of conserved forest protecting the ancient site. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)



A Bright Tomorrow

Juan Carlos Pérez added a positive note. Given all the ups and downs of individual civilizations throughout the ages, “civilization does not end. We are still here.”

National Geographic’s President of Mission Programs Terry Garcia had earlier expressed a related thought: “Decline is not destiny. We can learn from choices wise and foolish made by people of the past.”

Given the nature of the conference, bringing together lessons from very different cultures to see how they can help us today, the most poignant closing comment may have been that from Li Xinwei of the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “What I have learned this week is how powerful our human civilizations are, and how amazing each civilization is. Our future is not one global culture,” he said. “It’s a colorful mosaic of many cultures.”


What do you think? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

NEXT: Read All Posts From “Dialogue of Civilizations”


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Dana Hawn

    Of course all great civilizations eventually will fall to ruin. We know this simply because history repeats itself. The fall of a civilization is not the end of humanity. However, now with “civilizations” being as large as they are, the wipe outs or ends will now be considered worldly disasters.

  • M Balakrishnan

    No, sir, the civilization generally do not collapse. They are destroyed, systematically. Do you think and Maya and Aztec collapsed? Ask the european invaders and they will reply how systematically and brutally it was brought to ‘collapse’, how red-indians were killed enmasse – with $ 10 for a child’s head and $40 for an adult family, loot goes to civilized european colonizers. Would you mind writing an article on such genocides who destroyed civilizations? Please?

  • Andreas Pfeffer M. A.

    The answers that one gets are either positive or negative : if you look at history and prehistory from the point of view “what can we learn from it” that would imply, that we can learn. If we just look at the mistakes that were made and prolong those into the future, there might not be a positive outlook. I think it’s important to see, where and how mistakes or achievements where being made because that will sharpen our perspective on present day decision making.

  • M-L Reifschneider

    Man and civilizations are inevitably meant to rise and fall; it is in God’s or Nature’s plan that as man/civilization becomes ever more convinced of his superiority, he will inevitably fall. Even as a species, it is highly questionable whether or not we will survive.

  • D.J.

    I question whether humans are able to exist in large civilizations/societies where in which power becomes very imbalanced, resources become used or compromised at a rate beyond which is sustainable, brought on in part by an imbalance in power and a collective near sightedness by the majority of the human population.

    How many years have humans lived in civilizations as compared to smaller hunter/gatherer tribes? How long have human genes had to evolve to adapt to living in civilizations?

    It doesn’t seem humans, for the most part, have of a sense of urgency about problems that are not smaller in radius or shorter in time scale. They tend to be concerned about their own stability and well-being; oneself, their immediate family, their offspring and their own more immediate future, not three to five generations down the line.

    Anything outside of that, for the most part for most people, is of relatively little importance.

  • P Cade

    I loved your quote from by Tomas Barrientos. . “When we study the civilizations of the past we discover there is an ideology behind it all, and this is very closely related to identity. When we look at the modern world [we think,] what is our current identity? Our current ideology? I believe [given] today’s lack of an ideology where we know our identity individually, how can we go forward? We need to know where we come from so we know where we are headed. If our ideology is just to have a phone and a computer, and as long as my sports team wins, I have all that I need, then our destiny is almost written.” As it challenges us to think longer term in a world that is focused on the short term. It is so easy to live just for ourselves right now without regard for the bigger arcs of culture. As at one time the Sumerians were modern and now they are history. Your blog is an important reminder that we can learn from the past and it is relevant to now.

  • Madan Lal arora

    In my opinion these are the reasons

    Most civilization in their peak time ignored the all round safeguard
    All civilization had the weakness of indifference in there social system,as rulers and subjects,riches and Poor’s,highers and down trodden
    Outsider invaders had been helped by. Insider
    All invaders used in human violence either in the name of religious beliefs or to loot wealth and get slaves.

    All invaders utilize all in human resources for their own satisfaction and service.
    Presently look at the world same practice are being followed by so calld civilized society.Nothing but vested interest.

    The main three reasons are concluded in one world POWER

  • maykaylah

    i, in my 7th grade social studies class, am learning about the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. Many of the civilizations were conquered, or taken over by a new ruler thus leading to the end of one empire, or dynasty and the beginning of a new one.

  • Terry Sharp

    From our Book Seasons of Civilisation.

    Why do societies and civilisations decline? It is because nature’s evolutionary design has crafted in our behaviour traits which bring them to an end. These traits are nature’s pawns, to produce cycles of change. This leaves a question, what are the traits that produce these patterns in our behaviour which create such calamitous events, and can we change them? These patterns of behaviour will produce changes similar to the four divisions as found in the annual seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn. Except our seasons are not governed by environmental change, but by the social development of societies. The traits in our nature set the agenda expressed in social seasons of a society which drives growth – spring, seeding – summer and decay – autumn, preparing for regeneration winter, which has occurred many times in human history. Like many organic systems in nature, our societies have seasons. An awareness of these social seasons and the behaviour exhibited in a season will give us the knowledge to make adjustments to create a better outcome than what as occurred in past societies.

    Western societies are now in the social season of autumn. There are major changes taking place, which are more significant than at any other time in our history. Even the most powerful members of our societies seem helpless to stop the advance towards decline. Some of the issues facing us are: global warming, resource depletion, powerful commercial interests overriding community concerns and a general erosion of social values. Technology is reducing our physical and emotional contact with each other, making us devoid of our natural humanities. Consumerism is feeding greed and addictions. We are losing and have just about nearly lost our sense of community and national and social pride which before had kept us together. There is a need to see ourselves as part of an evolutionary system and recognise the seasonal path we are on, which will show whether we need to change course. We need to come to terms with the idea nature designed our behaviours to fulfil its evolutionary requirements, not to give us a happy existence but to transition its motion of change. Social seasons are the means in which nature has structured cycles of change, in human societies, expressed in growth, seeding and decay then regeneration. It is the social seasonal cycles we need to understand to avoid continuing down the same calamitous path many societies have taken. Like many organic systems in nature, our societies have seasons. There are circumstances that may diminish a society’s capacity to reach the social season of summer a civilised state.

  • Terry Sharp

    The three trends within each season of our civilisation

    Winter: 600 to 1066
    • First trend, collapse of central government then social chaos, wars and famine. It’s a time for gaining resource and territory.
    • Second trend, leaders striving for power by defeating opposition by brute force. This was a time for building alliances.
    • Third trend, establishing allegiances in the shaping a new cultural identity, gaining support of the church to strengthen legitimacy
    Spring: 1066 to 1689
    • First trend, establishing Monarchical rule through the building of governmental institutions, bringing the church under Monarchal control, (Reformation: state run religion “protestantism”)
    • Second trend, challenging the power of the state “monarchy” creating social debate, invention of the printing press, growth of literacy and the increase of parliamentary power
    • Third trend, rising of the enterprise class, growth in the middle class and building empire
    Summer: 1689 to 1979
    • First trend, development of science and reason as a priority of education and the diminishing power of the church, greater social mobility
    • Second, trend; building a commercial empire
    • Third trend; striving for social freedom, justice and then the gaining of universal adult suffrage.

    Autumn: 1979 to2035 approximate
    • First trend, the emerging of a financial class system, rich individuals having the ability to manipulate the political system in their favour, to exploit the poor and middle classes, over population, then there are businesses search for cheap labour “slaves” building of a slave economy
    • Second trend, social confusion and disillusionment with the political leadership.
    • Third trend, economic collapse, increasing social and political rifts. This is the point of unravelling the social fabric which binds a society together. “Back to Winter, social chaos and wars”.

  • cory waggoner

    Oswald Spengler lays the whole mechanism out.

  • Duc

    What insight or parallels does this article provide on our current US political state of affairs? Is winter coming?

  • John Smith

    Let me sum it up clearly and plainly for you.

    Nothing Lasts Forever

  • Dan

    Alfred E. Newman said: “What, Me Worry?” Meaning in vernacular terms, “Why give a shit?” I do give a shit and here is why: As educated humans (and I don’t mean this in an arrogant way whatsoever), we strive to see the worth and beauty of life. If we are successful, we cherish the positive around us. We see a lot of miraculous things happening such as the beauty that nature offers or the kindness of many human beings — we want to do everything in our power to enhance the positive that life offers rather than destroy it. All that mankind and womankind has created on the positive side — from music to architecture to modern conveniences to medical breakthroughs to spiritual awakening and more— to destroy these achievements that took billions of hours to create is a tragedy that every human being that continues to care is motivated to neutralize and void. I know some of you will view what I say here as Pollyanna, wishful thinking or even foolishness, and I understand your pessimism. There is plenty or evidence to support your view. However, whether we achieve ongoing existence as a civilization with positive quality of life or not, it is within my DNA and hopefully yours to think we can and strive for that outcome.

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