Revealed: Climate change led to decline of Maya civilisation
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 09 November 2012
One of the world’s great civilisations was forced into terminal decline by successive dry periods culminating in a prolonged drought, according to a study that throws fresh light on the mysterious disappearance of the Maya in Central America around 1,100AD.
Scholars have long wondered about the circumstances that led to the relatively abrupt end of the Maya civilisation which had existed for about 2,000 years and grew to support a population of up to 13 million people at the height of its “classic” period.
Some of the theories about the collapse of Maya society included civil wars or famine brought on by environmental degradation, but the latest study suggests that the underlying reason may have been a lack of rain resulting from regional climate change.
Scientists who have analysed the chemical makeup of limestone columns or stalagmites that formed over 2,000 years on the floor of Yok Balum Cave in southern Belize said the region experienced periods of abundant rainfall and then prolonged drought, which correspond to the rise and fall of Maya society.
“Unusually high amounts of rainfall favoured an increase in food production and an explosion in the population between AD 450 and 660. This led to a proliferation of cities like Tikal, Copan and Caracol across the Maya lowlands,” said Doulas Kennett, professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.
“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,” Professor Kennett said.
“The most severe drought, in the record (from AD 1020 to 1100) occurs after the widespread collapse of Maya state centres and may be associated with widespread population decline in the region. Over the centuries, the cities suffered a decline in their populations and Maya kings lost their power and influence,” he said.
The study of the stalagmites of Yok Balum Cave, published in the journal Science, relied on a radioactive dating technique that is accurate to within 17 years, combined with an analysis of oxygen isotopes that gave estimates of the rainfall over a period of many centuries.
The classic period of the Maya, which started around 300AD, resulted in the building of stone pyramids, the widespread use of written records and the charting of the movements of stars and planets. The population during this period expanded from around 3 million to 13 million, supported by a network of irrigated corn fields.
It is not the first time that climate change has been suggested as a possible cause of the Maya demise. In 2003, scientists studying river sediments in the Cariaco Basin off the coast of Venezuela suggested that a period of prolonged drought may have killed off the Maya.
James Baldini of Durham University, who led the cave monitoring part of the latest study, said that after many years of hardship brought on by a drier climate, the final nail in the coffin appears to be a drought that last the best part of the 11th Century.
“The rise and fall of the Maya is an example of a sophisticated civilisation failing to adapt successfully to climate change,” Dr Baldinin said.
“Periods of high rainfall increased the productivity of Maya agricultural systems and led to a population boom and resource overexploitation. The progressively drier climate then led to political destabilisation and warfare as resources were depleted,” he said.
- 1 Students heading off to 'charity challenge' grounded at Gatwick after travel firm goes bust
- 3 Daily Show's Jon Stewart destroys Fox News for its Ferguson coverage
- 5 Like Jennifer Aniston, I am no less of a woman because I am childless
Ashya King missing: Police hunt five-year-old boy with brain tumour snatched from Southampton hospital by his parents
YouTube video posted by Isis militants shows 'execution of 250 Syrian soldiers'
Daily Show's Jon Stewart destroys Fox News for its Ferguson coverage
Californian drought is so severe it's 'causing the ground to move'
Botched ice bucket challenge leaves man critically injured after plane drops hundreds of gallons of water
Exclusive: We share blame for creating 'jihad generation', says Muslim strategist
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage
- < Previous
- Next >
£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...
£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...
£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...
£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...