Collapse of Maya Civilization Linked to Climate Change

By Marco Soave, via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Mayan civilization is somewhat of an enigma, and the demise of this advanced culture has remained somewhat of a mystery – until now.

A team of international researchers from various disciplines have been hard at work trying to fathom the goings on at that time – both in terms of the political turmoil and the climatic factors that may have influenced events that led to the downfall of such an advanced society. Their findings, published recently in Science (9 Nov, 2012) reveal that the rise and fall of the Maya society was climate related.

“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.”

Maya Political History

The scientists pieced together the political history by analyzing hieroglyphics inscribed on ancient stone monuments, which are typically dated and depict significant events in their history, including celebrations, battles, and political unrest. From these inscriptions, they developed a war-index based on the use of keywords carved into the stone monuments, which gave them an overview of when this society was at peace and when things were more hostile.

“The historical texts carved on stone monuments provide a rich record of wars, marriages, accessions of kings and queens, and the capture and killing of warriors from competing groups. The events are incredibly well dated with the Mayan long count calendar system,” explains lead author, Professor Douglas Kennett, Pennsylvania State University, USA. “The end of this tradition of stone carving between AD 800 and 1000 marks the widespread collapse of the Classic Maya tradition.”

Did the Maya Civilization Collapse Due to Climate Change?

It has been proposed before that the rise and fall of the Maya society was climate related, but there has never been any reliable proof to substantiate this. In order to test this theory and to get a clearer picture of what was driving hostility, and what eventually led to the collapse of this civilization, the team needed to gather data on prevailing weather and climatic conditions at the time.

To get the information they needed the scientists collected a stalagmite from Yok Balum cave situated within close proximity to key Maya sites in Belize. By analyzing the stalagmite in 0.1 millimeter increments using oxygen isotope dating techniques, they were able to determine rainfall patterns dating back 2,000 years to the present.

They then set about correlating hostile events from the war-index to the rainfall data collected from the stalagmite. These records reveal that the Maya society flourished between 300 – 660 AD, when rainfall was high, leading to a rising population and burgeoning cities. However, the downward spiral began around 660 AD when they were faced with climate change resulting in much drier conditions, which fueled political competition, unrest, and war, leading to a collapse of the political system in 1000 AD. A prolonged drought between 1020-1100 AD is thought to have resulted in failed crops, famine, loss of life, and forced migration, which ultimately led to the fall of the Maya civilization.

“Unusually high amounts of rainfall favored an increase in food production and an explosion in the population between AD 450 and 660″ explains 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 climate data 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.”

“The effects of climate change are complex and play out over multiple time scales,” he added. “Abrupt climate change 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.”

Lessons From the Maya

The collapse of the Maya society illustrates the consequences of a society that fails to adapt to climate change. When resources essential for survival (food and water) are scarce, more people scramble for these limited resources, leading to friction, hostility and war.

There are many lessons to be learnt from the Maya, which Winterhalder sums up best: “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.”

Journal Reference:

D. J. Kennett, S. F. M. Breitenbach, V. V. Aquino, Y. Asmerom, J. Awe, J. U. L. Baldini, P. Bartlein, B. J. Culleton, C. Ebert, C. Jazwa, M. J. Macri, N. Marwan, V. Polyak, K. M. Prufer, H. E. Ridley, H. Sodemann, B. Winterhalder, G. H. Haug. Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change. Science, 2012; 338 (6108): 788 DOI: 10.1126/science.1226299


Jenny Griffin

Jenny Griffin

Jenny Griffin is the Owner/Founder of Ecologix Environmental Media Services, Ecology Matters, and Stuff4Petz. As an environmental writer, she covers a broad range of environmental, conservation and sustainability issues, but has a particular interest in ocean science and climate change, as well as green building and environmental health topics.
Jenny Griffin

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