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”


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Meet the Author
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.