The role of weather in the disappearance of the Maya civilization

Extreme weather preceded collapse of Maya civilization.

The collapse of the Maya is one of the world’s most enduring mysteries. Now, for the first time, researchers have combined a precise climatic record of the Maya environment with a precise record of Maya political history to provide a better understanding of the role weather had in the civilization’s downfall.

Inscribed on each monument is 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. The researchers noted that the number of monuments carved decreased in the years leading to the collapse.

But the monuments made no mention of ecological events, such as storms, drought or references to crop successes or failures.

For that information, the research team collected a stalagmite from a cave in Belize, less than 1 mile from the Maya site of Uxbenka and about 18 miles from three other important centers. Using oxygen isotope dating in 0.1 millimeter increments along the length of the stalagmite, the scientists uncovered a physical record of rainfall over the past 2,000 years.

Combined, the stalagmite and hieroglyphs allowed the researchers to link precipitation to politics. 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.

Stalagmites are the result of water dripped through a cave and depositing minerals. They “grow” through this deposition over many thousands of years and can be used, as here, like a recording somewhat akin to tree ring data. The Mayan disappearance is a mystery but it’s unsurprising that a multitude of factors were the culprit.

  1 comment for “The role of weather in the disappearance of the Maya civilization

  1. November 8, 2012 at 10:20 PM

    I’m immediately skeptical of climate-based explanations for the Classic Maya collapse, because they usually match the end with the 8th-9th century, when the seeds of the political collapse began by the 7th century. Which is when this suggests there was a shift (660 is actually a pretty good round number for when things started to fragment in the Maya political world).

    That said, 300 does coincide somewhat with a new political order in the Maya lowlands, but also it is around the time or shortly after the collapse of many Maya cities, including the massive city of El Mirador, and the cessation of early monument building in the Maya highlands. I suspect this transformation may have more to do with the imperial ambitions of Central Mexican Teotihuacan. But the origins of urban and kingly Maya civilization goes back more to 400 BC than 300 AD.

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