Climate change affected the rise and fall of Mayan civilization from A.D. 300 to 1000, according to a new study covering two millennia.
An international research team used stalagmite samples from a cave near Uxbenka in southern Belize to generate data on past rainfall, and compared the results with political information on stone monuments at Mayan cities in the region.
“Unusually high amounts of rainfall favored an increase in food production and an explosion in the population between A.D. 450 and 660,” noted study lead author Douglas Kennett at Penn State University in a press release.
“This led to the proliferation of cities like Tikal, Copan, and Caracol across the Maya lowlands.”
The data shows that this bountiful era was followed by a four-century-long drying period, including major droughts, that led to reduced agricultural production, social fragmentation, and political collapse.
“Over the centuries, the cities suffered a decline in their populations and Maya kings lost their power and influence,” 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 sociopolitical tragedy and human suffering experienced periodically by the Classic Period Maya.”
Kennett says we can learn from the effects of climate change on the development and disintegration of Mayan civilization.
“The effects of climate change are complex and play out over multiple time scales,” Kennett said. “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.”
The researchers discussed their findings in an article in Science on Nov. 9.
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