mayan drought
April 21, 2015

How lowlands drought contributed to Mayan downfall

Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

It must have been a time of great hardship and struggle for the ancient Maya civilization. The land was parched and dry as the devastating effects of climate change on brought a great drought. New research has shown that, despite attempts to adapt to the changes, Mayan culture finally collapsed between 800 and 950 A.D.

The researchers found that markers of historic droughts in Central America match the patterns of disruption to Maya society during those centuries of hardship. But we now have a clear picture of how the Mayans fought a long hard battle to survive and ultimately failed.

redOrbit has been finding out more from the study’s first author Peter Douglas, now at the California Institute of Technology.

“The research makes clear that the ancient Maya were not passive victims of climate change. They adapted in response to drought, but it only worked up to a point,” said Peter.

Mark Pagani, a Yale University professor of geology and geophysics was a co-author of the study. “Our work demonstrates that the southern Maya lowlands experienced a more severe drought compared to the north,” added Pagani, who is also the director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

“The south was the center of the Maya population, and their capacity to adapt was limited,” Pagani explained. “The north was already accustomed to fairly dry conditions and did much better. There was actual expansion there after the collapse, but the southern cities never recovered.”

A maize of difficulties

The study found that a change in maize production during an earlier period of drought allowed populations to continue to grow. The dominant agricultural technique shifted from swidden, a method of clearing land by slashing and burning, to a more intensive and concentrated system of crop production.

The research team looked at hydrogen and carbon isotopes in leaf waxes from two lake sediment cores in Mexico’s northern Yucatan region and in Guatemala. The hydrogen isotopes enabled the team to study drought and precipitation amounts, while the carbon isotope signatures provided insights into agricultural methods.

“This highlights the importance of taking a long-term perspective in adapting to future climate change, especially considering predictions of very severe climate impacts in the latter part of this century and beyond,” said Peter.

A world of war

We asked Peter how much contact there was between the northern and southern populations. Might there have been co-operation in tackling the problems they all faced?

“The interregional relationships are really fascinating. We know in the Classic period there was a lot of contact across Mesoamerica. For instance we see emissaries from Central Mexico coming to some Maya cities and perhaps deposing their rulers and putting their allies in power. There were definitely contacts between the northern and southern lowlands as well.

"In the Late Classic and Terminal Classic periods the ancient Maya were divided into a set of alliances that were at war with each other. You might think of it like the Allies and the Axis Powers in World War II. But it’s important to realize that the southern lowland was the real center of this rivalry. The north was really more on the periphery. I think the warfare probably strongly limited the amount of co-operation that occurred between different city states. This might be part of the reason why some cities did ok through the period of drought and others did really badly. They weren’t helping each other out and every city state had to fend for itself.”

Drought was the deadliest of many enemies

How important was drought in the collapse compared to the effects of war, overpopulation and social structure problems like a lack of flexibility due to a rigid ruling system?

“I think drought was clearly the most important external cause of collapse. However, a similar drought might not have caused societal collapse in a different society that did not face these other issues. As this paper makes clear, the Ancient Maya faced earlier droughts and were able to cope and continue to grow. But two things were different in the Terminal Classic: they had developed into a larger and more centralized society, and the drought was significantly stronger. And also potentially warfare was a lot more rampant. It’s possible that given their internal problems they might have experience collapse sooner or later without drought, but drought seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Did the Mayans turn to their Gods?

We wondered if there were any records or depictions of the drought in the archaeological record – any artifacts, carvings or signs? In particular, was there anything suggesting that they tried to appease the gods as the Mayans saw what was happening?

“There are a few minor indicators in the archaeological record, but not much. Much of the Maya written record is not well preserved (or was destroyed by the Spanish) and archaelogists have yet to decipher a lot of what they have found. But most of the written records found so far are about things like religion, warfare and the lives of nobles. There aren’t really any weather reports or discussions of economics or agricultural yields. The Maya did have a rain god, but I’m not sure if you see more references to the rain god during times of drought."

Where did the last Mayans go?

What would have happened to the last survivors? Would they have slowly migrated as the civilization collapsed? Would some of them have assimilated with other cultures?

“Migration is the most likely outcome for many of the Ancient Maya during the Terminal Classic, but it is hard to find direct evidence for it in the archaeological record. With the Maya, elites are very visible in the archaeological record but the rest of society is almost invisible. So it is hard to see if most people in the areas with the strongest drought moved, and where they went. But I think most archaeologists believe they did move- there is some linguistic and stylistic evidence for this. It looks like some may have headed south to the highlands of Guatemala, and some probably went to the coastal parts of Yucatan and Belize.”

Don’t mess with these guys

Finally, on a more personal note, we asked Peter what he would give to be able to go back in time and see the Mayan culture for real? If redOrbit could lend him a time machine to do just that would he jump at the chance, just - as long as there's a return ticket option? Peter’s great answer brings the Mayans to life.

“I would certainly pay a lot of money to be able to do that. First of all I’d want to see if we were right about the drought! If we could actually measure rainfall it would be much easier than doing all of this geochemistry. And it would be very exciting to experience Maya culture in real time and see all the aspects of their world that right now we only have limited evidence for. But I certainly would want a return ticket, and I would want to bring reinforcements too. The Maya have a well-deserved reputation for being warlike and I’m not sure how they would react to strange people from the future coming to check them out!”

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