The city was desolate. . . . It lay before us like a shattered bark in the midst of the ocean, her masts gone, her name effaced, her crew perished, and none to tell whence she came, to whom she belonged, how long on her voyage, or what caused her destruction; her lost people to be traced only by some fancied resemblance in the construction of the vessel, and, perhaps, never to be known at all.
-- J. L. Stephens
The birth and death of ancient civilizations is a fascinating theme to historians and scientists alike. Why such powerful and successful organizations declined and eventually disappeared is one of the most intriguing problems for the social sciences. 1 One of the most interesting examples of the rise and decay of a civilization is provided by the Mayans, who built a powerful society extending over a vast area of southern Mexico and northern Central America. There flourished the most brilliant civilization of the New World in pre-Columbian times, spanning nearly twelve centuries until 1541. When in 1839 two American explorers, John Stephens and Frederic Catherwood, found the first Maya ruins in the middle of the rainforest in Copán, they were astonished by the terrible contrast between the majesty of those huge and elegant monuments and the wild jungle surrounding them. The city that Stephens discovered was already empty before Columbus's journey.