The ancient Mayan civilization had its origins in the Yucatan Peninsula
, in a vast region of Mesoamerica encompassing what today is southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.
Carbon dating puts the earliest known occupation of Mayan society in Cuello (modern-day Belize) around 2600 BC. The Maya were an impressive civilization, as seen by the art and architecture they left behind. But they were also skilled intellectually, developing the only fully developed writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas.
Their skill with mathematics and astronomy was extraordinary, writes the BBC
. They used these skills to align their pyramids and temples based on the orientation of the planets and the solar equinoxes. Today we look upon their enduring temples and pyramids in awe, and we wonder what happened to cause this mighty civilization to fall.
The decline and collapse of the Maya civilization
Archaeologists refer to the decline and collapse of the Maya civilization as the classic Maya collapse
. Around 820 AD, the Mayan people began to abandon many of their southern cities, and many cultural activities came to a halt. Within 200 years, the Maya had been assimilated into other Mesoamerican civilizations.
How do we know this? The Maya dated many of their monuments
. Prior to 500 AD, few monuments were being built. But between 672 and 750 AD, the number of monuments had grown from about 20 a day to as many as 40 a day. After this, the number of monuments being constructed began to fall, dropping to 10 by 800 and to zero by 900 AD.
What happened during that time when the building of monuments dropped and eventually came to a halt? There are about 88 different theories as to why the civilization collapsed, ranging from foreign invasion from the south by non-Mayan groups, deforestation and a lack of action by Mayan kings. The most compelling theory to explain the Maya collapse is a prolonged drought — a megadrought
Climate change led to a prolonged severe drought
(which mostly come from the analysis of cave formations) show that during the “Classical Age” between about 250 AD and 800 AD, the civilization boomed and rainfall amounts were relatively high. But starting about 820 AD, the region experienced 95 years of droughts, some lasting for a decade at a time or more.
Thin tropical soils in the Yucatan Peninsula and Petén Basin areas are particularly vulnerable to mega-droughts and were well documented by colonial Spanish officials who recorded the cycles of drought, famine, disease, and war in later years. Since that time, numerous studies have determined climate change and a prolonged and severe drought led to the collapse of the Maya empire.
The extensive drought theory provides a comprehensive explanation and all the non-environmental factors, such as war, peasant revolt, changing trade routes and even foreign invasion are all explained as being the result of the drought. The drought theory is becoming accepted as new tools and technology give archaeologists, climate scientists and historians new data to examine.
Learning from the past can give us insight into the present
"The dry spells of a thousand years ago spanned not years, but generations," anthropologist Brian Fagan writes in his 2008 book, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
. Fagan describes the Medieval Warm Period, a time of warm climate in the North Atlantic region that may also have been related to other climate events around the world during that time.
Fagan looks at other destructive droughts and how they laid waste to some of the world’s great empires, from the Maya in Central America to the Khmer in Cambodia. Research published in PNAS
in 2011, suggests that Khmer’s ancient city of Angkor “might have collapsed” because of an extended drought.
provided some insight into the research, explaining, "recent evidence suggests that prolonged droughts might have been linked to the decline of Angkor — for instance, tree rings from Vietnam suggest the region experienced long spans of drought interspersed with unusually heavy rainfall."
Collapsed civilizations are interspersed all through our history, and while their demise has been attributed to everything from war to pestilence, there is a general theme that runs through all of them. It's a story that goes something like this: When the environment is good, civilizations flourish, agricultural lands are expanded, there is a building boom and populations expand.
But what happens when we stretch our ecosystems to their limit? Add a few stressors, like political, economic or environmental problems, and then add a prolonged drought, and many past societies broke under the strain. But then we have to wonder why some societies collapsed, yet some societies continued to thrive.
Kevin Anchukaitis, a Columbia University paleoclimatologist and co-author with Buckley on the 2010 PNAS Angkor paper, has a plausible explanation.
"So, were the crops of the Maya or the [Angkor] Khmer withering in the field during megadroughts? Perhaps, probably. But I tend to subscribe to the theory — elegantly described by University of Illinois anthropologist Lisa Lucero — that it wasn’t drought per se that tipped these civilizations into collapse, but rather the failure of “elites” and the infrastructure that was part of their power, effectiveness, and control."
So the question for us today is this: Are we as a civilization resilient enough and smart enough to learn from the historical record? Anchukaitis cautions: “What I think we don’t know yet is what combination of drought characteristics and societal response to them would strain that resilience. To what extent are we immune from the type of drought-civilization synergies that brought about the demise of past complex civilizations?”