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Posts Tagged ‘Mayan Collapse’

Did Climate Change Kill the Mayans?

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 10, 2012

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There are a lot of things that didn’t kill the Mayans: asteroid strikes, planet-wide quakes, global cataclysms prophesied by  shamans and etched into ancient calendars. What did wipe them out was likely something that is far less mystical, and indeed is entirely familiar to modern civilizations: climate change. If you want a look at what we could face in the decades and  centuries ahead, look at what one of the world’s greatest cultures suffered a millennium ago. That’s the conclusion of a  newly released study and what it lacks in Hollywood-friendly drama, it makes up in sound — and scary — science.

The arc of the Mayan rise and fall is well known: The civilization first took hold in 1,800 BC, in the Central American region that now includes and surrounds Guatemala. It grew slowly until about 250 A.D. At that point, a great expansion of the culture — known to archaeologists as the Classic Period —  began and continued to 900 A.D., yielding the architectural, political and textual artifacts that have so mesmerized scientists. But a decline began around 800 A.D. and led to a final collapse about 300 years later.

The Mayan arc was  hardly smooth and steady, and there were periods of turbulence and decline even during the golden era. The great settlement of El Mirador, which once might have been home to 100,000 people, collapsed around 300 A.D, for example. From the fifth to eights centuries A.D., there was an explosion of the rich tablet texts that provided so many insights into how the Mayans lived and worked. Suddenly, however,  starting in 775 A.D., the number of texts began to plunge by as much as 50%, a bellwether of a culture that was declining too.

(MoreHow the Drought of 2012 Will Make Your Food More Expensive)

There have been a lot of theories for what accounted for such cycles, with climate among the most-mentioned. The better the year-to-year weather — with plenty of rainfall and reasonably steady and predictable temperatures — the better crops do, and the more the culture and economy can expand. The texts have hinted at declines in productivity, perhaps climate-related, coinciding with generations of unrest, but there was never a precise way to confirm those writings. Analysis of lake sediments can yield a reliable reading of the levels of sulfur, oxygen isotopes and other atmospheric markers at various points in history, which reveal a lot about rainfall and other critical variables. But the Mayans themselves often unwittingly disturbed those sediments, with deforestation — including wide-scale burnings — and fishing. Read the rest of this entry »

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