Climate Change Most Probable Cause for Mayan Civilization Collapse

Climate Change and Mayan Civilization

Maya kings ruled the New World for about 500 years, but around 800 C.E., the empire began to collapse, and its kings disappeared. By 1000 C.E. most of the cities and temples were nothing but ruins. Scientists have offered multiple explanations for the Maya demise, but the evidence has been ambiguous and there is still no general consensus regarding the collapse of the Maya empire.

In a recent study, however, paleoclimatologists Martin Medina-Elizalde and Eelco Rohling of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, share their findings of the role that drought may have played in the Maya collapse.

The scientists used the four best-dated paleoclimate records from the Yucatán Peninsula to create a climate model. The records included stalagmites from Tecoh Cave, remains of slugs and snails from Lake Chichancanab, remains of tiny crustaceans from Lake Punta Laguna, and sediments from Lake Chichancanab.

After plugging their data into the climate model, Media-Elizalde and Rohling calculated that during the two longest and severest droughts that occurred in the middle of the Maya collapse, Lake Chichancanab water levels were reduced by 30%, and overall annual precipitation in the Yucatán had decreased by 40%.

Although the findings indicate that the drought was not as severe as previously believed, the researchers explain that the Yucatan peninsula is mostly made of limestone, and therefore extremely sensitive to even small rainfall decreases.

Both Maya archaeologist Keith Prufer and climate geologist Gerald Haug praise the study for its solid findings and contribution to Maya history. Haug however, cautions that other factors should not be overlooked. Archaeologist Lisa Lucero, a Maya expert, agrees by explaining “monocausal explanations for the Maya collapse, such as drought, should be considered passé, even if drought may have set into motion a series of social and political events that led to the disappearance of the kings, and the fall of their civilization.”