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Honduras Mayan city ruins in Copan

New research reveals clues into downfall of Maya civilization


A new study that examined minerals from the famous underwater cave in Belize, known as the Blue Hole, discovered evidence for an extreme drought between 800 and 900 AD, which corresponds to the time period in which the ancient Maya civilization collapsed. The researchers suggest that the drought contributed to the demise of the Maya.

The Maya culture stretched across much of what is now southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and thrived there for more than 2,000 years.  Their advancement spanned the sciences, astronomy, mathematics, writing system, calendars and monumental constructions. Cities, like the magnificent Tikal, were ruled by a dominant elite who could command mighty armies. Yet over the course of only a century, beginning around the 8 th century AD, the cities became  abandoned and were left in ruins.

The once great city of Tikal, Guatemala

The once great city of Tikal, Guatemala. Source: BigStockPhoto

The Maya people never entirely disappeared – many moved North, and areas such as Northern Yucatán in Mexico and the Highland states of the K'iche' and Kaqchikel, prospered afterwards. Nevertheless, the Maya civilization never truly recovered and only a fraction of the Maya people survived to face the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

The reasons for the downfall of the once great and powerful Maya civilization has long been debated among scientists and historians.  Countless theories for their decline have been proposed ranging from overhunting to foreign invasion, climate change, deforestation, drought, disease, peasant revolt, and even supernatural explanations.

The evidence for the drought explanation has been growing in recent years. In 2012, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that severe reductions in rainfall were coupled with an rapid rate of deforestation, as the Maya burned and chopped down more and more forest to clear land for agriculture.  Another study the same year, published in the journal Science, analyzed a 2,000-year-old stalagmite from a cave in Belize and found that a sharp drop in rainfall coincided with the decline of the Maya civilization.  Now a new study, reported by Live Science, further strengthens the case that drought contributed to the downfall of the once powerful Maya.

Researchers drilled cores from the sediments in the Blue Hole of Belize, as well as several nearby lagoons, which provide information about levels of rainfall in years passed. “During storms or wetter periods, excess water runs off from rivers and streams, overtops the retaining walls, and is deposited in a thin layer at the top of the lagoon,” writes Live Science. “From there, all the sediments from these streams settle to the bottom of the lagoon, piling on top of each other and leaving a chronological record of the historical climate.”

Scientists studied minerals extracted from the Blue Hole of Belize to learn about rainfall in ancient Maya territory

Scientists studied minerals extracted from the Blue Hole of Belize to learn about rainfall in ancient Maya territory. Source: BigStockPhoto

The results showed that an extreme drought occurred around 800 AD, and lasted for over a century, right when the Maya civilization collapsed. After the rains returned, the Maya civilization moved north, and created sites such as Chichen Itza in Mexico. But the research also found that between 10000 and 1100 AD, another drought struck, and this corresponds to the fall of Chichen Itza.

The researchers explained that the drought may have caused secondary problems such as famines and unrest, which may also have contributed to the decline of the civilization. 

Featured image: Honduras Mayan city ruins in Copan. The picture presents detail of decorating walls of the temple. Source: BigStockPhoto

By April Holloway



"......discovered evidence for an extreme drought between 800 and 900 AD..." and "....over the course of only a century, beginning around the 8th century AD..." The ninth century, methinks.

It seems that cliff dwellers moving to the top of mesas would have defense in mind, as much as water. Granted, terrace farming works amazingly well.  The mesas still have Kivas and priesthoods/clans. I'm not sure about whether the cliff dwellers had kachinas - being made of wood I imaging the remains would be harder to identify that objects made of other materials. But, of course, the very basis of religion - the gods who come down from the mountains, changed with the move. Living in AZ, I am more educated about the Hopi than the other Puebloan cultures. The Hisat-Sinom (more popularly known as the Anasazi) did leave rather quickly, in some cases. As I recall there was one cliff dwelling that appeared to have been abandoned with food prepared and left behind.

Which brings us to another precipitating factor - the impact of the Athabascans (Indeh and Dineh) into the biome created a more imperative need to move to a more easily defended area. The last I read the timing of that invasion has been pushed up to around 1000-1200 AD. Old Oraibi has been continously occupied since roughly 1000 AD. I assume there may have been some cause and effect there. The Navajo (Dineh) did capture Hopi men for their weaving skills.


Richard Sutton's picture

I think you're right in thinking the drought affected the American Puebloan communities, but the abandoning of the largest cities, such as Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, AZ and Bandelier, NM as well as the Mesa Verde community also seems timed to the advent of the Kachina Culture north from it's origins in Mexico. It moved the focus of ritual away from a society of Priests and made their religious practices more democratic, ordered by societies. Those thay disagreed witht he prevailing attitudes simply moved away from the cities to found newer communities, usually -- to their credit -- more concerned with nearness of water and less about defensive positions. To the outlier communities of the American Southwest, cycles of drought became the norm and they learned to farma nd plant with much less rainfall than the cities' larger scale agriculture and irrigation required.

Trader in American Indian arts since 1985, writer and armchair anthropologist


Was there truly a 10000 AD? Or should that be 1000?

Interesting article - I wonder if the same drought was responsible, or partly responsible, for the collapse of the southwestern cliff dwellers societies The timing is close - only a few hundred years at best (approx 900 AD).


Roberto Peron's picture

Climate change has been a powerful element for the demise of many human civilizations.  Just look at our own today!


aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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