Ancient Civilizations

Why the Maya Fell

Latest evidence hints at a cautionary tale for modern civilization.

Every civilization has its rise and fall. But no culture has fallen quite like the Maya Empire, seemingly swallowed by the jungle after centuries of urban, cultural, intellectual, and agricultural evolution. What went wrong? The latest discoveries point not to a cataclysmic eruption, quake, or plague but rather to climate change. And faced with the fallout, one expert says, the Maya may have packed up and gone to the beach. The latest Maya climate-change study, published Friday in the journal Science, analyzes a Belizean cavern's stalagmites — those lumpy, rocky spires on cave floors — to link climate swings to both the rise and fall of the empire. Formed by water and minerals dripping from above, stalagmites grow quicker in rainier years, giving scientists a reliable record of historical precipitation trends. The Maya religious and political system was based on the belief that rulers were in direct communication with the gods. When these divine connections failed to produce rainfall and good harvests, tensions likely developed. Within the scant 25 years between 750 and 775, for example, 39 embattled rulers commissioned the same number of stone monuments — evidence of rivalry, war, and strategic alliances, according to Kennett's study. But times would get even harder. The stalagmite record suggests that between 1020 and 1100 the region suffered its longest dry spell of the last 2,000 years. With it, the study suggests, came Maya crop failure, famine, mass migration, and death.

 

By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, inland Maya populations had decreased by 90 percent, and urban centers had been largely abandoned.

 

Kemo D. 7

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