Drought-Induced Conflict Caused Collapse of 15th Century Maya Capital
An international assembly of scientists with impressive credentials in a diverse range of fields has completed an extensive study of climate change in the post-classical Maya Empire, which existed from approximately 950 to 1500 AD. Their study has produced evidence that a prolonged drought dealt the final death blow to this already declining empire, with the effects of that long rainless period having an especially catastrophic impact on the citizens of Mayapan, who were forced to abandon the last Maya capital in the mid-15th century.
The Rise and Fall of Mayapan, a Casualty of Climate Change
A powerful and prosperous federation of Maya peoples occupied the Yucatan Peninsula and the surrounding area for more than 3,000 years. But something caused a rapid decline of Maya civilization beginning in the ninth century AD, and by the 10th century the Maya people had abandoned much of the territory they’d once controlled.
A smaller and more contracted version of the empire held on in certain parts of the region, however, with most of the population settling near productive water sources in the northern lowlands and Maya highlands. In this post-Classical era the last great Maya capital, Mayapan, emerged as the center of the empire in the 12th century. The city was located in the northwestern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, and is estimated that between 15,000 and 17,000 people lived there when the population was at its peak. The remains of more than 4,000 structures have been identified by archaeologists performing excavations within its city walls, revealing just how developed this ancient capital really was.
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Round and K’uk’ulkan temples at Mayapan. (Bradley Russell / Nature)
From the 13th century on the Mayapan-centered version of the empire was mostly led by rulers from the Cocom family, who managed to hold a conglomeration of diverse people with varied interests together for more than 200 years. But tragically, the scaled-down, post-Classical Maya Empire was destined to meet the same fate as the Classical period empire that came before it.
In 1441, the powerful aristocratic Xiu family led a revolt against Cocom rule, and this rebellion proved to be disastrously effective. The Cocom family was virtually wiped out by their enemies, and the capital city they’d occupied and helped build to greatness was completely destroyed and abandoned within a few years’ time.
The sacking of Mayapan turned out to be the final chapter of the great Maya Empire. The region experienced a total political disintegration after that, with the remaining population huddled together under the protection of small city-states that were generally antagonistic toward each other and therefore unable to reform their lost united kingdom.
This is familiar history to Maya scholars. What has remained unknown is exactly why events in Mayapan unfolded the way they did. The Mayapan-led Maya civilization had seemingly found some stability after the rise of the post-Classical kingdom, but it quickly degenerated into chaos and factional warfare in the mid-15th century, seemingly out of nowhere.
Except what happened didn’t come out of nowhere at all, according to the scientists who participated in the aforementioned study of climate change in the post-Classical Maya era. Everything that took place was a direct consequence of an extended drought, they explain, in an article just published in the journal Nature Communications.
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Climate Change and its Impact on Maya Warfare and Migration Revealed
The large team of scientists involved in this research used archaeological, historical, and paleoclimate records and datasets to explore what they described as “the dynamic, shifting relationships among climate changes, civil conflict, and political collapse at Mayapan.” Their idea was to see just how closely alterations in climate—specifically, a dramatic and sustained decrease in rainfall levels experienced near the end of the post-Classical period—could be linked to the breakdown of political order in the Maya capital city at about the same time.
Lead study author Douglas Kennett, an anthropologist from the University of California-Santa Barbara, and his colleagues from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom studied a broad collection of historical and archaeological sources to learn more about the violence experienced by people living in Mayapan between the years 1200 through 1450.
They were particularly interested in the condition of human skeletal remains that had been excavated from the area, during various archaeological digs that had taken place over the years. They wanted to find out how frequently these skeletons showed signs of traumatic injury, and they also wanted to know how that data related to the time period in which the individuals with damaged skeletons had lived.
What they discovered strongly suggested a link between drought conditions and an increase in violent conflict. There was an extended, severe drought in Maya territory during the period between 1400 and 1450, and the skeletal remains dated to that era did in fact show more signs of physical injury caused by violent attacks. It seems that warfare and related conflicts were increasingly common during this critical time, in association with rainfall deficits that would have caused reduced crop yields and serious food insecurity.
“In Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the impacts of rainfall levels on food production may have been closely aligned with human migration, population decline, warfare, and shifts in political power,” the study authors wrote in their Nature Communications paper. Notably, past research has established a connection between environmental degradation, drought, and societal collapse during the Classical Maya period, which adds more evidence to support the legitimacy of the study authors’ interactive model.
Under this framework of analysis, the final destruction of Mayapan could be seen as an inevitable consequence of an unworkable situation. The authority of the Cocom rulers would have been undermined by environmental and climatological circumstances beyond their control, and their subsequent loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the people likely encouraged their main political rivals to strike out against them. In the end what resulted was complete destruction of a once-mighty city, one that may have become unviable because of crop failures that would have made supporting Mayapan’s large population impossible.
While acknowledging the role climate change played in the collapse of the last vestiges of the Maya Empire, the study authors emphasize that Maya civilization was adaptable and did not completely disappear.
“Prolonged drought escalated rival factional tensions,” they wrote, “but subsequent adaptations reveal large-scale resiliency, ensuring that Maya political and economic structures endured until European contact in the early sixteenth century.”
The people survived by migrating to smaller towns that were able to weather the climatological storm, hanging on until rainfall levels returned to normal. If the Spanish hadn’t arrived as regional conquerors in the early 16th century, it is certainly possible that the Maya Empire could have eventually risen again, with their smaller settlements serving as the seeds for the reflowering of Mesoamerica’s greatest civilization.
K’uk’ulkan temple at Mayapan with December Soltice Serpent. (Susan Milbreth / Nature)
What Happened Before Could Happen Again
The team of more than 30 researchers who participated in this new study emphasize the essential role that climate change can play in societal evolution—or de-evolution, as the case may be.
“Our transdisciplinary work highlights the importance of understanding the complex relationships between natural and social systems, especially when evaluating the role of climate change in exacerbating internal political tensions and factionalism in areas where drought leads to food insecurity,” they wrote in the concluding section of their Nature Communications article.
If scientists are right about the current pace of climate change, and meaningful actions are not undertaken to stem the tide of global warming before it becomes an overwhelming flood, research of this type could have profound relevance in the 21st century. Past patterns of environmental breakdown, warfare, and mass migration might be repeated on the grandest scale imaginable, and in the not-too-distant future.
Top image: Central Mayapan showing the K’uk’ulkan and Round temples. Source: Bradley Russell / Nature
By Nathan Falde