Drought…Did This Cause The Fall Of Maya Civilization?

By  | October 5, 2018 | Filed under: Interesting Facts, News

maya_feature When the Spanish conquistadores sailed for Central America in 1517, their goal was to vanquish the resident Maya civilisation. But the colonists arrived to find that much of their work had been done for them.  The Maya’s towering limestone cities…a classic feature of one of the ancient world’s most advanced societies – were already being reclaimed by the jungle.

The question of how the Maya met their end is one of history’s most enduring mysteries.  The Maya were  intellectually advanced. They had a strong grasp of mathematics and astronomy, which they used to align their pyramids and temples with the precession of planets and the solar equinoxes. And they used the only known written script in Mesoamerica, a bizarre-looking set of characters known as Maya hieroglyphs.

Apart from its dramatic scale, what makes the Maya collapse so striking is that, despite decades of study, archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused it. As with the Roman Empire, there probably wasn’t one single culprit for the Maya’s downfall. But the nature of their decline leads some researchers to believe that the Maya civilization fell victim to a major catastrophe – one able to topple city after city in its wake.  Some theories about what ended the Maya civilisation are invasion, civil war, collapsing trade routes…but ever since the first Central American ancient climate records were pieced together in the early 1990s, one theory has become particularly popular: that the Maya civilization was ultimately doomed by a period of severe climate change.

In the centuries immediately before the Maya collapse – the so-called “Classical Age” between about AD250 and 800 – the civilisation boomed. Cities flourished and harvests were good. Climate records (which mostly come from the analysis of cave formations) show that during this time the Maya area had received relatively high rainfall. But the same records show that, starting in about AD820, the region was ravaged by 95 years of punctuated droughts, some of which lasted for decades.

Ever since these droughts were first identified, researchers have noticed a striking correlation between their timing and that of the Maya collapse: most of the Classic Maya cities fell between AD850 and 925…largely coincident with the century of drought. And while a simple correlation isn’t enough to close the case, the tight fit between the droughts and the downfall leads many experts to believe that the 9th Century climate shift might somehow have caused the Maya’s demise.

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