Climate change had political, human impact on ancient Maya

Nov 08, 2012
An international team of archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change. Credit: Douglas Kennett, Penn State

(Phys.org)—An international team of archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change. The researchers reconstructed rainfall records from stalagmite samples collected from Yok Balum Cave, located nearly three miles from ancient city of Uxbenka, in the tropical Maya Lowlands in southern Belize. They compared their findings to the rich political histories carved on stone monuments at Maya cities throughout the region.

The role of climate change in the development and demise of classic , ranging from AD 300 to 1000, has been controversial for decades because of a lack of well-dated climate and . But an international team of and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change.

An international team of archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change. Credit: Claire Ebert, Penn State

In an article published Nov. 9 in the journal Science, the researchers outlined how they reconstructed rainfall records from stalagmite samples collected from Yok Balum Cave, located nearly three miles from ancient city of Uxbenka, in the tropical Maya Lowlands in southern Belize. They compared their findings to the rich political histories carved on stone monuments at Maya cities throughout the region.

"Unusually high amounts of rainfall favored an increase in food production and an explosion in the population between AD 450 and 660" said Dr. Douglas Kennett, lead author and professor of anthropology at Penn State. "This led to the proliferation of cities like Tikal, Copan and Caracol across the Maya lowlands. The new show that this salubrious period was followed by a general drying trend lasting four centuries that was punctuated by a series of major droughts that triggered a decline in agricultural productivity and contributed to societal fragmentation and political collapse. The most severe drought (AD 1020 and 1100) in the record occurs after the widespread collapse of Maya state centers (referred to as the Maya collapse) and may be associated with widespread population decline in the region."

An international team of archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change. Credit: Douglas Kennett, Penn State

"Over the centuries, the cities suffered a decline in their populations and Maya kings lost their power and influence" Dr. Kennett said. "The linkage between an extended 16th century drought, crop failures, death, famine and migration in Mexico provides a historic analog, supported by the cave stalagmite samples, for the socio-political tragedy and human suffering experienced periodically by the Classic Period Maya."

The rich archaeological and historical records of the Maya provide an opportunity to examine the long-term effects of climate change for both the development and disintegration of complex sociopolitical systems like our own, according to Dr. Kennett, an internationally known expert on the human effects of global climate change and the environmental impacts of expanding populations.

"The effects of climate change are complex and play out over multiple time scales," he added. "Abrupt is only part of the story. In addition to climate drying and drought, the preceding conditions stimulating societal complexity and population expansion helped set the stage for later stress on their societies and the fragmentation of political institutions."

Explore further: NASA sees Typhoon Matmo making second landfall in China

More information: Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change: Douglas J. Kennett et al., Science, 2012.

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User comments : 9

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Claudius
1.3 / 5 (14) Nov 08, 2012
The Maya didn't pay enough carbon taxes.
mountain_team_guy
1.6 / 5 (13) Nov 08, 2012
Clearly the Mayans were unprepared militarily and economically to face the European invasion, carbon taxes should have been second to technological and industrial development.
chromosome2
2.7 / 5 (6) Nov 09, 2012
This says climate change took them out, not anthropogenic climate change. It's the difference between getting shot in the foot and shooting yourself in the foot. There's no reason to blame them for the climate change that took them out. For us to cripple our own world with its global economy by being environmentally irresponsible, however, is very blameworthy indeed.
IronhorseA
3.7 / 5 (3) Nov 09, 2012
Clearly the Mayans were unprepared militarily and economically to face the European invasion, carbon taxes should have been second to technological and industrial development.


The Mayan civilization fell long before the Europeans arrived. The Aztecs, on the other hand, now that's a different story ;P
Noumenon
1.8 / 5 (13) Nov 09, 2012
What!, there was climate change before the industrial revolution, in relatively recent history?
GSwift7
1.8 / 5 (10) Nov 09, 2012
The de-Cap-itation and Trade program didn't work.

Just kidding, but on the serious side; Always be cautious when looking at proxy studies like the one above. Stalagmites are not easy to interpret. They are much less consistent than other types of proxies.

Having said that, there is one thing I notice that is interesting in the above story:

The most severe drought (AD 1020 and 1100) in the record occurs after the widespread collapse of Maya state centers


The collapse happened first, so the people had already fragmented before the worst of the drought hit (if the proxy is being interpreted correctly). So the question remains; why did they self-destruct? This indicates that climate was variable in that time, but it also says that they were in trouble anyway.
Claudius
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 09, 2012
This says climate change took them out, not anthropogenic climate change.


Some people just have no sense of humor at all.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (8) Nov 09, 2012
Hermaneutics.
VendicarD
5 / 5 (1) Nov 11, 2012
Yes, of course, and we have explained it to you many times before.

It is quite telling how incapable of learning you are. Do you have an incurable brain disease?

"What!, there was climate change before the industrial revolution" - NumenTard

The natural regional climate change that disrupted the culture of the flintstones and their culture of thousands is unlike the anthropogenic global climate change that is now causing grief globally for a population of nearly ten billion.

If you didn't have a brain wasting disease I would actually take the time to explain it all to you... Again..

But I fail to see the point in trying to teach basic science to a Worthless Conservative Animal.