Severe droughts explain the mysterious fall of the maya

Mexico, Chichen Itza, El Castillo

C7WAEW Mexico, Chichen Itza, El Castillo

Source: BBC

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.

By the time the Spanish made landfall, the Maya’s political and economic powerhouse has vanished

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 Mayapeople survived; they even managed to stage a long resistance to European rule. But by the time the Spanish made landfall, the political and economic power which had erected the region’s iconic pyramids, and had at one time sustained a population of some two million people, had vanished.

El Castillo at the Mayan ruins at Tulum Quintana Roo Mexico

El Castillo at the Mayan ruins at Tulum Quintana Roo, Mexico (Credit: 24BY36/Alamy)

The first Maya sites were built during the first millennium BC, and the civilisation reached its height around AD600. (In the chronology of Mesoamerica, the Maya sit between the earlier Olmec and later Aztec civilisations). Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of ancient Maya cities, most of which are spread across southern Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Belize and Guatemala.

It’s likely that still more Maya ruins lie hidden beneath the region’s thick tropical forest.

The Maya had a strong grasp of mathematics and astronomy and used the only known written script in Mesoamerica

After about 200 years of serious archaeological study, we know enough about the Maya to be suitably impressed. Their distinctive art and architecture prove that these were master craftspeople.

The Maya were also 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.

The marvels the Maya left behind have earned them an enduring mystique. But the way the civilisation met its end is every bit as curious.

Let’s start with what we know. Around AD850, after centuries of prosperity and dominance, the Maya began to abandon their great cities, one after another. In less than 200 years, the civilisation had slumped to a fraction of its former glory. There would be later isolated resurgences, but the grandeur of the Maya’s heyday was gone forever.

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 civilisation fell victim to a major catastrophe – one able to topple city after city in its wake.

Archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused the Maya collapse

Archaeologists still cannot agree on what caused the Maya collapse (Credit: Travelstock44/Alamy)

There are abundant theories about what finished off the Maya. There are the old favourites – 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 civilisation 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.

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