Ancient lessons for a modern challenge

Jan 23, 2012
Angkor Wat Sunrise. Credit: J. Frasse.

What caused the collapse of the Cambodian city of Angkor, the largest preindustrial city in the world, 600 years ago? Previous research suggests war and overexploitation of the land were to blame, but a new study says drought may have played a major role despite the city’s sophisticated water management system.

The research into the demise of the city, site of the world famous Angkor Wat temple, could have lessons for people dealing with today, says Gates Cambridge scholar Mary Beth Day.

She is a member of an international research team which has been studying the water of Angkor, the seat of the Khmer empire. Angkor, which dates back to the ninth century, is a UN World Heritage site and considered one of the most important in archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Angkor Wat is said to be the world’s largest single religious monument. The region’s art and architecture have had a profound influence throughout South-East Asia.

Previous reasons suggested for the collapse of Angkor in the 15th century include war and of the land. Mary Beth, a paleolimnologist who is doing a PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, collected sediment samples from across the region by travelling around in a motorised rickshaw or tuk tuk. From these samples, as well as a sediment core from a reservoir built by the Khmer in the 11th century, she and her colleagues were able to piece together a 1,000-year climate history for the region.

They found that at the time Angkor collapsed, sediment deposition rates dropped significantly, water levels fell dramatically. This led to changes in the ecology of the reservoir and, says Mary Beth, is likely to be a cause of the region’s collapse, although not the only one.

She says that the political and social unrest between the lower and ruling classes created a perfect storm which meant that the city was not equipped to tackle the environmental challenges of the . “It was too much for them to handle all at once,” she says, adding that deforestation may have contributed to the area’s environmental problems.

The research was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and has drawn headlines worldwide.

Mary Beth believes the research has implications for modern day attempts to curb the effects of climate change. “Angkor had a very sophisticated system, but still it was not enough to combat extreme climate issues and political and social unrest,” she says. “There is a lot we can learn from studying how climate change affected populations in the past which could help us to devise ways of coping in the future.”

Explore further: Predicting bioavailable cadmium levels in soils

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Did Climate Influence Angkor's Collapse?

Mar 29, 2010

( -- Decades of drought, interspersed with intense monsoon rains, may have helped bring about the fall of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization at Angkor nearly 600 years ago, according to an ...

Teams Explore Roots of Angkor Civilization

Nov 29, 2006

Five seasons of excavations at Ban Non Wat, in Northeast Thailand, have unearthed 470 human burials covering a time span of more than 2,000 years. Earthwatch-supported research at this great moated site, led ...

Southwest headed for permanent drought

Jan 31, 2011

( -- The American Southwest has seen naturally induced dry spells throughout the past, but now human-induced global warming could push the region into a permanent drought in the coming decades, ...

Drilling for climate change

Jan 16, 2012

Researchers aboard the drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution will finish their Mediterranean voyage next week to unearth thousands of centuries of climate data from beneath the ocean floor.

Recommended for you

Predicting bioavailable cadmium levels in soils

11 hours ago

New Zealand's pastoral landscapes are some of the loveliest in the world, but they also contain a hidden threat. Many of the country's pasture soils have become enriched in cadmium. Grasses take up this toxic heavy metal, ...

Oil drilling possible 'trigger' for deadly Italy quakes

15 hours ago

Italy's Emilia-Romagna region on Tuesday suspended new drilling as it published a report that warned that hydrocarbon exploitation may have acted as a "trigger" in twin earthquakes that killed 26 people in ...

Snow is largely a no-show for Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

15 hours ago

On March 1, 65 mushers and their teams of dogs left Anchorage, Alaska, on a quest to win the Iditarod—a race covering 1,000 miles of mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, tundra and coastline. According ...

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

16 hours ago

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Study shows less snowpack will harm ecosystem

16 hours ago

( —A new study by CAS Professor of Biology Pamela Templer shows that milder winters can have a negative impact both on trees and on the water quality of nearby aquatic ecosystems, far into the warm growing season.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 24, 2012
More on the water management system at Angkor and the function of the barays (reservoirs) can be found in the 2009 Oxford Press book "Water Engineering in the Ancient World: Archaeological and Climate Perspectives on Ancient Societies of South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia" by Charles R. Ortloff. Effects of drought and defenses to mitigate its effects are discussed in detail.

More news stories

UN weather agency warns of 'El Nino' this year

The UN weather agency Tuesday warned there was a good chance of an "El Nino" climate phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean this year, bringing droughts and heavy rainfall to the rest of the world.

Low Vitamin D may not be a culprit in menopause symptoms

A new study from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) shows no significant connection between vitamin D levels and menopause symptoms. The study was published online today in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopa ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...