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. 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. 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