Debilitating drought may have been a major factor in the fractious politics that ended the Maya civilization, according to archaeologists. Maya culture thrived in wet seasons and fell apart when the rains ceased. "It's an example of a sophisticated civilization failing to adapt successfully to climate change," said James Baldini, a professor at Durham University in the UK.
This claim is the result of new 2,000-year-old climate records from caves, a "war index" consisting of certain keywords in Mayan rock inscriptions, and archaeological data.
The decline and fall of the Maya is still a great mystery, and the role of climate change--specifically, drought--has been controversial in part because of the lack of data. To remedy this, Baldini and researchers from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany and Belize analyzed stalagmites from a Belizan cave called Yok Balum, which is located a little less than a mile from the Mayan site of Uxbenká. The icicle-like cave growths serve a little like tree rings, containing a record of past climates that can be cross-checked by uranium-thorium dating. Like radiocarbon dating, this method can determine the age of non-organic calcium carbonate material--in this case, cave limestone.
A 22-inch stalagmite from Yok Balum yielded measurements of oxygen isotopes, the research team explains in their paper. These isotopes can be used to reflect rainfall at any given time, falling above the cave and seeping in to form the stalagmite.
By analyzing this spiky protuberance, the team was able to identify broad cycles of wet and dry periods, as well an abrupt drought, in the era of Classic Maya (300 to 1000 C.E.). They argue that growth and expansion of Maya civilization correlates strongly with a wet period spanning several hundred years, archaeologist Douglas Kennett said in a podcast with the journal Science, which publishes the paper today.
"The decline of the Maya actually appeared to correlate with a downturn generally in climate, and climate drying, starting at around AD 660," he said. "We see an increase in warfare at this time, which we argue in the paper is linked to troubles in their economic system related to decreased productivity of their agricultural system."
The lack of moisture led to a lack of crops, which led to instability. Between C.E. 800-900, many cities fell. The team analyzed historical records inscribed on well-dated stone monuments to chronicle this collapse.
In this case, climate change is a natural cycle driven by something called the Intertropical Convergence Zone and by the familiar El Niño cycle. In El Niño years, the intertropical zone moves over the Pacific, and moisture in the Maya region decreases, the researchers say. Rainfall amounts impact agricultural productivity for good or ill.
"Many of the best-recorded ruling Maya lineages were founded around 440 to 500 C.E. during [an] interval of anomalously high rainfall," the authors say. And the opposite is also true. A drying trend started around 160 years later, in 660 C.E., with sporadic drought cycles lasting several decades. The early stages of this dry trend correspond with an increase in warfare among Mayan cities, the authors claim. Drought triggered balkanization and isolation, increased warfare, and generally destabilized Maya society, they say.
Drought is still just one factor, however. Archaeologists and anthropologists can now start studying its impact on the more complex human elements of the fall, Kennett said.
"It clearly played out over several hundred years, and climate plays one role in that decline, we argue," he said. "We're looking at climate as one part of a very complex system, and this is one of the foundational data sets for looking at these complex interactions in a much more detailed fashion."
The next stage is developing more sophisticated models that can reflect how climate influences society, he said.
Well, we warned them of their carbon emissions. They have no one to blame but themselves.
Didn't they know about how much C02 is released during a human sacrifice?
Their scientists pointed to a hockey stick, but they just brushed it off as natural cycles.
We all learn from an early age - folks in my generation did, at least - that stalagmites (the sandcastle-shaped accretions on cave floors) "Stand like mighty pillars", and the stalactites (those are the icicle-shaped guys) "Hang tight to the ceiling". I think Ms. Boyle got them confused there for a minute. Happy to help out!
Well that's about to happen to USA thanks to Obamanomics.
"Obamanomics" has nothing to do with the climate change we are experiencing these days. The real issue is this lifestyle we humans have grown so accustomed to, that's killing our environment.
"The real issue is this lifestyle we humans have grown so accustomed to, that's killing our environment."
Just like what happened to the Mayans. ;)
These comments aren't quite as bad as the ones on facebook, but it still seems like some of you didn't actually read the article, you just saw the words "climate change" and thought it would be a good place to talk about your political beliefs.
The period of drought measured by geologists was part of a naturally occurring cycle in rainfall. The Maya were obviously powerless to cause or to remedy this. It would hardly have been the first (or last) time that drought contributed to the collapse of a civilization. Drought leads to famine, and famine leads to resource conflict (and, you know, starvation).
inb4 kungfujustice starts trolling again
If we all become vegetarians, we live longer, have less cancer, eat obviously less meat, so we have less cows, cow farts and less global warming.
Ok, have a carrot! ;)
"The Maya were obviously powerless to cause or to remedy this."
...just like today's "Climate Change." The arrogance of humans to think the we can actually overpower nature.
That was the sound of all these comments going over your head. Most people in our country don't believe our current climate fluctuations are in our control any more than the Mayans were. And its not just the uber religous super right wing fundamentalists either.
Anyway my joke was going to be something about their civiliaztion collapsing by going broke buying carbon credits. It wouldn't have been funny.
Without being a scientist it always seem apparent to me living next to a stream, river, ocean and maybe even a lake even on the rarest of occasions weather does extreme things and floods will happen. Perhaps it is better to build on higher ground or has society not learn that lessen yet?
But, I digress completely as I channel the recent hurricane and all the conversation of global warming and its mention in this article.
The Mayans calendar is so fascinating to me. Not for when it ends, but in when it begins.
The Mayan calendar starts around 3114 BC or 3374 BC respectively. Extremely prior to the Mayan owns culture existence. It begs the question, why create a calendar prior to your own cultural existence?
With lessons learned from the Mayans and their end, regardless of humanity is or is not responsible for global warming, it does exist and we as a society best prepare for it.
@dontcallmechief & bperetto: Of course our ability to affect the environment pales in comparison to the forces of nature, but post-industrial civilizations have had a measurable impact on the environment, and there is scientific consensus on this. It doesn't make any sense to compare us to a pre-industrial civilization in this matter.
Since the discovery of fossil fuels, we have affected the environment more than all previous generations of humanity combined. Nobody is saying humanity is the sole cause of climate change, but we are a contributing factor, and to suggest otherwise is just plain silly.
Been there! Climbed those stairs. One of the best vacations of my life!
Too Bad Al gore wasn’t around back then, he could have saved them with a carbon tax. NOT!
An interesting illustration of Malthusian priciples at work. Particularly in that is shows that the Malthusian peak might not always appear to be impending, but rather come about abruptly when there is a sudden shift in the quantity or consistance of a resource.
Thus, our own society does not necessarly need to hit a "peak oil" type event (the Myans certainly did not hit "peak rain" - it still rained, only at decreased levels for food production leading to increasing cost and conflict). A signifigant disruption in oil supply could have reactively severe effects on our society.
Resource diversification never seemed so appealing.
bperetto, I guess you don't acknowledge air pollution, man-made islands, large scale mining, deforestation, animal extinctions due to hunting and habitat destruction, polluted water supplies, numerous diseases propagated by overpopulation, etc. to be humans affecting nature's course. Concrete jungle cities were just part of nature's plan to you? Roads and cars covering millions of miles of earth just appeared, right? Man had no affect on the Earth because we don't have the ability to affect or change anything...sure.
7 billion people can do a lot, look around you the evidence is everywhere.
I've seen estimates from 1.3 to 1.4 billion cows worldwide, each producing 500 litres of methane a day and accounting for 14% of all emissions of the gas.
Cow farts really do hurt the enviroment.
Eat a carrot! ;)
Bagpipes.....do you just disagree with anything science related? Why are you even here?
The disappearance of the Mayans is one of archaeology's greatest mysteries, it happened fast, we're not sure of the timeline but we're reasonably sure it took less than century to happen.
Massive cities, cities close to a scale of what we have today just simply abandoned for no apparent reason. In terms of astronomy and medicine they were light years ahead of any other civilization of their time, so you really have to wonder, what the hell happened?
Could have been the drought, but if that's the case why not simply migrate south, or even north for that matter, what compelling reason would they have to stay and let their entire civilization crumble?
I believe there were droughts, but as an argument for the collapse of the entire Mayan civilization, it has some holes.
Wow,all the research gathered from the history of so many iceages (global cooling) that has occurred and will occur again are being ignored in this story,in my opinion. Wolf/sporer,dalton,maunder minimum and the next cooling via low solar activity goes to...lansheidt I think. This cooling climate anomaly directly effects all lattitudes to the equator not just the northern hemisphere. Can't believe science fact(iceages) can be ignored from any climate disaster hypothesis. Droughts lead to starvation of any ancient civilization,no doubt.Keep an eye on our Sun ,she's been quiet and we are starting to see the effects now!let's not be blind,AGW I'm not sure if it exists. I read were all part af a D.N.A. Bottleneck... caused by ..u guessed it,starvation dieoff. Were practically all related from a near extiction. So,its not just the Mayan culture that almost vanished.
I pray and hope in the remote areas of South America, there lives tribes of Mayans and I wish for they culture and religion to continue!!!!!!
Climate change doomed the Mayans?
I wonder how Dan Nosowitz would explain this away. It proves what rational people have been saying all along, that the climate is always changing.
There was never a time when it wasn't Danny boy. But rational people don't really need an article about the collapse of the Mayans to prove it, it's just common sense.
Or didn't they teach you that in any of your English lit. classes?
But if we have a drought today it won't be part of a natural cycle will it Salt?
It'll have to be a result of Man Made Global Warming, or no wait, that's been changed to Man Made Climate Change.
Salt, what people like you need, is to read a fable called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'
I think it should be required reading in any serious literature class (are you listening Dan?)
"The arrogance of humans to think the we can actually overpower nature."
Al Gore and the rest Man Made Global Warming gangsters don't think for a second that they can control climate change, they assume, and correctly so, that they can rope the useful idiots into believing they can.
@Robot - If we got rid of cows, and started eating...I don't know...cabbage instead, wouldn't that be trading one fart for another? And what about all the new tractors we would need? Maybe we should be spending our resources on giving Gas-X to cattle instead. Regardless, it is interesting that cow-farts were big-time news until the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal hit. Can we say "media diversion"?
And you know good and well why Mayans had calendars that pre-dated their civilization: aliens!!
I am most excited for December 22nd 2012 and the NEW Mayan calendars come out, lol. I hear the pictures are out of this world!
All you conspiranazis who think this article is a smoking gun for your anti-climate change agenda seem to always forget the most important factor: no one argues climate change is not natural. Global climate change is very natural, and no scientist refutes that. What the overwhelming majority of scientists do agree is that industrialized humanity is accelerating this natural process. Think of the U-235 atom. In nature, U-235 decays quite nicely on its own, but then we fire a free neutron at it to ACCELERATE this decay.
The sun cycles are acknowledge by science in global warming in past, current and future cycles of the suns energy output. In addition, yes there is no stopping the sun.
I do agree with our scientist that humans are amplifying global warming and have been doing so, since the industrial revolution, too.
Almost everything I've read says the Mayans didn't simply cease to exist. They just left the major cities and lived a rural life. So yeah, they migrated. Coincidentally, there is evidence that suggests that converting so much forest to farmland may have inhibited the natural cycle or precipitation. So it's possible that Mayans contributed to the drought, and their own downfall.
Let’s not forget that as the Vikings, Spanish, Portuguese and eventual Europeans venture about the North and South America's their showing up on the beaches and introducing themselves wipe out all sorts of tribes of natives with disease.
They could of had a meet and great one day with the Vikings and they Vikings left, unknown to them, they just wipe out a whole civilization a year or so later, thousands of years ago.
WoW, kind of puts it in perspective when the Annunaki return and the Armageddon happens.