Collapse 1: Why Civilizations Fall

Collapse 1: Why Civilizations Fall Photo credit: Clipart.com


To explore the factors that contribute to the collapse of a society.


This lesson is the first of a two-part series about the social changes that caused the collapse of important ancient civilizations in Central America, Mesopotamia, the southwestern United States, and western Africa. In these lessons, students learn about factors that cause major social changes and about prerequisites for a society’s survival.

Collapse 1: Why Civilizations Fall forms part of the story of human society. Students already should be familiar with the origins and importance of rules, laws, and social customs as well as the concept and some causes of social change. The lesson builds on ideas covered in earlier grades such as those found in Science NetLinks lessons at the 3-5 level, including Artifacts 1: What Can We Learn about Artifacts and Artifacts 2: Artifacts in Context. In grades 9–12, students will learn more about the types, causes, and complexities of social change, using databases to identify trends and relationships. Middle-school students are capable of imagining themselves living in other cultures and should be able to identify factors in social change as well as constant patterns in family and community life.

Collapse 2: Interpreting the Evidence extends the information in Collapse 1 and offers useful information and activities that help students learn about the ways that scientists learn about civilizations that have disappeared, archaeological issues, methods, evidence, and types of measurement. It addresses issues of values and attitudes, particularly the importance of honest, clear, and accurate record keeping; and the fact that different explanations can be given for the same evidence.

Planning Ahead

If the whole class cannot work online at once, duplicate all pages of the site through the page called Mali and Songhai. Also duplicate the two student sheets found in this lesson.


Ask students what is meant by the terms society and social change. Tell them that you want them to think about factors or events that have caused America to change. Create a chart on the board called Changes in America, with two columns, Factor or Event and Result.

Ask students:

  • What factors or events can you think of that caused American society to change?
  • How did society change as a result?

As causes, students might suggest natural events like droughts, floods, or hurricanes; social events like mass immigration; technological advances such as satellite communications, computers, or cell phones; or external changes like the enemy attacks on September 11, 2001. Make sure that students understand some of the ways that these changes may have altered society.

Go on to remind students that many great civilizations they learn about in history (such as those in ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt) no longer exist.

Ask students:

  • How do you think this might have happened?
  • Can you name any factors or events that you think might be able to wipe out an entire civilization?

Tell students that they are about to use a website to learn about why four great ancient civilizations fell—and how scientists found out what happened to them.


Have students go online and look at the first page of the website called Collapse: Why Do Civilizations Fall? If all students cannot be online at once, distribute the introductory first page of the site. Read it with students.

Ask students:

  • What are some of the factors in the collapse of a civilization?
    • (War, drought, natural disaster, disease, overpopulation, economic disruption, and political struggles.)
  • Which of these factors are external? 
    • (War, drought, natural disaster, and disease.)
  • Which are internal?
    • (Overpopulation, economic disruption, and political struggles.)

Part 1: The Maya and Looking for Clues at Copán
In this lesson, scientific values and attitudes that have been learned are reinforced and developed further in the context of a specific discipline. Students take part in an archaeological investigation that helps them realize that people can interpret evidence in different ways.

Have students read the page The Maya. Make sure that students understand what the Maya civilization and Copán were—and when and where they flourished.

Tell students they now will work on the pages called Looking for Clues at Copán. Make sure that students understand the purpose of this activity and the two main questions they are to answer. Show students how to access “Your Copán Journal" by clicking on the journal icon on the lower right side of the page. Distribute the Looking for Clues at Copán student sheet.

Give students 10–15 minutes to read these materials on their own and take notes on their student sheets. After they have read the material, discuss it in class, reviewing one area of evidence at a time and using the questions below. Use the Looking for Clues at Copán teacher sheet to help organize the discussion and as a guide to the answers.

Ask students:

  • What type of evidence was found in this area?
  • What did this evidence show?

To conclude this part of the lesson, have students go to the Your Conclusions page. Ask students to answer the two questions and to justify their answers by writing short essays.

Now ask students to go to How have other people interpreted the evidence? Discuss the responses of other people. Read and discuss the conclusions of the experts as seen in “What do the experts think?”

Part 2: Understanding Collapse: Other Civilizations
The following parts of the website can be read and discussed in class or assigned as homework followed by class discussion.

Direct students to the Understanding Collapse page. Read and discuss it with the class.

Ask students:

  • What are some of the things that happen when a society collapses?
  • What are the factors that Thuman and Bennet consider “prerequisites for survival” for a society?
  • Do you think that America today meets those “prerequisites for survival”? Justify your answer.

Now have students visit the pages listed below:

Read and discuss the website pages in class or assign them as homework. Tell students to fill out their Other Civilizations: Factors Causing Collapse student sheets. Then discuss the material in class, asking the questions listed below. Use the Other Civilizations: Factors Causing Collapse teacher sheet as a guide to correct answers.

Ask students:

  • Describe this civilization. When and where did it flourish?
  • What factors led to the collapse of this civilization?
  • What evidence tells us the causes of its collapse?


Ask students to turn in their two student sheets on Looking for Clues at Copán and Other Civilizations: Factors Causing Collapse. Assess student work by using the teacher sheets.


Follow this lesson with the Science NetLinks lesson Collapse 2: Interpreting the Evidence.

Ask students to choose individual or group research topics suggested by this website, using the Related Web Sites listed throughout the site pages and the links listed on the page called Related Resources. Students may summarize their findings in written reports, class presentations, or a classroom exhibit.

Ask students to research and report on factors that caused other famous civilizations to collapse (ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Pompeii, Aztecs, Incas, etc.). Their reports should explain how scientists learned what happened (archaeological evidence).

Revisit the topic of changes in American society in the last 10 to 20 years and factors that have caused those changes. Based on what they have learned, ask students to identify elements in American society that have stayed the same, elements that have changed, and factors that caused those changes.

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