Maya civilization's collapse linked to climate change: study

WASHINGTON Fri Nov 9, 2012 10:40am EST

1 of 3. Stalagmites and stalacites from the Yok Balum cave in Belize are pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters November 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dr. Douglas Kennett/Penn State/Handout

Related Topics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For a clue to the possible impact of climate change on modern society, a study suggests a look back at the end of classic Maya civilization, which disintegrated into famine, war and collapse as a long-term wet weather pattern shifted to drought.

An international team of researchers compiled a detailed climate record that tracks 2,000 years of wet and dry weather in present-day Belize, where Maya cities developed from the year 300 to 1000. Using data locked in stalagmites - mineral deposits left by dripping water in caves - and the rich archeological evidence created by the Maya, the team reported its findings in the journal Science on Thursday.

Unlike the current global warming trend, which is spurred by human activities including the emission of atmosphere-heating greenhouse gases, the change in the Central American climate during the collapse of the Maya civilization was due to a massive, undulating, natural weather pattern.

This weather pattern alternately brought extreme moisture, which fostered the growth of the Maya civilization, and periods of dry weather and drought on a centuries-long scale, said the study's lead author, Douglas Kennett, an anthropologist at Penn State University.

The wet periods meant expanded agriculture and growing population as Maya centers of civilization grew, Kennett said in a telephone interview. It also reinforced the power of the kings of these centers, who claimed credit for the rains that brought prosperity and performed public blood sacrifices meant to keep the weather favorable to farming.

ANALOGIES TO MODERN CIVILIZATION

When the rainy period gradually changed to dry weather around the year 660, Kennett said, the kings' power and influence collapsed, and correlated closely with an increase in wars over scarce resources.

"You can imagine the Maya getting lured into this trap," he said. "The idea is that they keep the rains coming, they keep everything together, and that's great when you're in a really good period ... but when things start going badly, and (the kings are) doing the ceremonies and nothing's happening, then people are going to start questioning whether or not they should really be in charge."

The political collapse of the Maya kings came around the year 900, when prolonged drought undermined their authority. But Maya populations remained for another century or so, when a severe drought lasting from the years 1000 to 1100 forced Maya to leave what used to be their biggest centers of population.

Even during the Maya heyday, humans had an impact on their environment, Kennett said, mostly by farming more land, which in turn caused greater erosion. During the dry periods, the Maya responded with intensified agriculture.

When the climate in the area shifted toward drought, in a long-running pattern called the intertropical conversion zone, it exacerbated human impact on environment, Kennett said.

"There are some analogies to this in the modern context that we need to worry about" in Africa or Europe, he said.

If there are changes in climate that undermine agricultural systems in some areas, it could create widespread famine, social instability and warfare that then draw in other populations, he said -- just as it may have happened in Maya civilization.

(This story corrected spelling in the fourth paragraph to Douglas from Douglass.)

(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; editing by Carol Bishopric)

FILED UNDER:
We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (2)
americanguy wrote:
See what happened is we have a time machine, and we sent global warming back in time, and it killed the Mayans.
Proof that global warming is real, and time machines are real.
HA HA

Nov 11, 2012 9:10pm EST  --  Report as abuse
deerecub1977 wrote:
Yet their buildings remain.

Nov 11, 2012 9:52pm EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Photo

California's historic drought

With reservoirs at record lows, California is in the midst of the worst drought in decades.  Slideshow