Did Climate Change Kill The Maya?

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Climate change may or may not be a consequence of man’s activity on the planet, but researchers have found that it has definitely played part in the demise of great civilizations of the past.

According to research from two University of California, Davis, scientists, decades of extreme weather were responsible in part for the dismantling of political culture and later the entire human population of ancient Maya civilization.

“Here you had an amazing state-level society that had created calendars, magnificent architecture, works of art, and was engaged in trade throughout Central America,” said UC Davis anthropology professor and co-author Bruce Winterhalder. “They were incredible craftspersons, proficient in agriculture, statesmanship and warfare — and within about 80 years, it fell completely apart.”

The researchers conducted extensive reviews of the inscriptions on monuments within the Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project to learn more about sociological patterns just before the Maya disappeared.

“Every one of these Maya monuments is political history,” said UC Davis Native American Language Center director and linguist Martha Macri, a specialist in Mayan hieroglyphs for three decades.

Each monument is inscribed with the date it was erected and dates of significant events, such as a ruler’s birthday or accession to power, as well as dates of some deaths, burials and major battles. In the years leading to the collapse, the Maya erected fewer and fewer monuments, according to the researchers.

In order to examine weather patterns to correspond with the information on the hieroglyphs, the researchers turned to stalagmite formations in a cave in Belize near key Maya population centers.

The researchers discovered by examining the political writings alongside precipitation records that:

Periods of high and increasing rainfall coincided with a rise in population and political centers between 300 and 660 AD. A climate reversal and drying trend between 660 and 1000 AD triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall sociopolitical instability, and finally, political collapse. This was followed by an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 AD that likely corresponded with crop failures, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.

“It’s a cautionary tale about how fragile our political structure might be. Are we in danger the same way the Classic Maya were in danger? I don’t know. But I suspect that just before their rapid descent and disappearance, Maya political elites were quite confident about their achievements,” Winterhalder said of the findings.

Sam Rolley

Staff writer Sam Rolley began a career in journalism working for a small town newspaper while seeking a B.A. in English. After learning about many of the biases present in most modern newsrooms, Rolley became determined to find a position in journalism that would allow him to combat the unsavory image that the news industry has gained. He is dedicated to seeking the truth and exposing the lies disseminated by the mainstream media at the behest of their corporate masters, special interest groups and information gatekeepers.