Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Extreme weather preceded collapse of ancient Maya civilization

Date:
November 8, 2012
Source:
University of California - Davis
Summary:
Decades of extreme weather crippled, and ultimately decimated, first the political culture and later the human population of the ancient Maya, according to a new study.

Research about this Venus symbol carving from Chichen Itza in Mexico, among other carvings, has led to the conclusion that extreme weather helped lead to the demise of the once powerful civilization.
Credit: Martha Macri/UC Davis photo

Decades of extreme weather crippled, and ultimately decimated, first the political culture and later the human population of the ancient Maya, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers that includes two University of California, Davis, scientists.

The collapse of the Maya is one of the world's most enduring mysteries. Now, for the first time, researchers have combined a precise climatic record of the Maya environment with a precise record of Maya political history to provide a better understanding of the role weather had in the civilization's downfall.

Their findings are published in the Nov. 9, 2012 issue of the journal Science.

"Here you had an amazing state-level society that had created calendars, magnificent architecture, works of art, and was engaged in trade throughout Central America," said UC Davis anthropology professor and co-author Bruce Winterhalder. "They were incredible craftspersons, proficient in agriculture, statesmanship and warfare -- and within about 80 years, it fell completely apart."

To determine what was happening in the sociopolitical realm during each of those years, the study tapped the extensive Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project, run by UC Davis Native American Language Center director and linguist Martha Macri, a specialist in Mayan hieroglyphs who has been tracking the culture's stone monuments for nearly 30 years.

"Every one of these Maya monuments is political history," said Macri.

Inscribed on each monument is the date it was erected and dates of significant events, such as a ruler's birthday or accession to power, as well as dates of some deaths, burials and major battles. The researchers noted that the number of monuments carved decreased in the years leading to the collapse.

But the monuments made no mention of ecological events, such as storms, drought or references to crop successes or failures.

For that information, the research team collected a stalagmite from a cave in Belize, less than 1 mile from the Maya site of Uxbenka and about 18 miles from three other important centers. Using oxygen isotope dating in 0.1 millimeter increments along the length of the stalagmite, the scientists uncovered a physical record of rainfall over the past 2,000 years.

Combined, the stalagmite and hieroglyphs allowed the researchers to link precipitation to politics. Periods of high and increasing rainfall coincided with a rise in population and political centers between 300 and 660 AD. A climate reversal and drying trend between 660 and 1000 AD triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall sociopolitical instability, and finally, political collapse. This was followed by an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 AD that likely corresponded with crop failures, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.

"It has long been suspected that weather events can cause a lot of political unrest and subject societies to disease and invasion," Macri said. "But now it's clear. There is physical evidence that correlates right along with it. We are dependent on climatological events that are beyond our control."

Said Winterhalder: "It's a cautionary tale about how fragile our political structure might be. Are we in danger the same way the Classic Maya were in danger? I don't know. But I suspect that just before their rapid descent and disappearance, Maya political elites were quite confident about their achievements."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California - Davis. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. D. J. Kennett, S. F. M. Breitenbach, V. V. Aquino, Y. Asmerom, J. Awe, J. U. L. Baldini, P. Bartlein, B. J. Culleton, C. Ebert, C. Jazwa, M. J. Macri, N. Marwan, V. Polyak, K. M. Prufer, H. E. Ridley, H. Sodemann, B. Winterhalder, G. H. Haug. Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change. Science, 2012; 338 (6108): 788 DOI: 10.1126/science.1226299

Cite This Page:

University of California - Davis. "Extreme weather preceded collapse of ancient Maya civilization." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 November 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121108142750.htm>.
University of California - Davis. (2012, November 8). Extreme weather preceded collapse of ancient Maya civilization. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121108142750.htm
University of California - Davis. "Extreme weather preceded collapse of ancient Maya civilization." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121108142750.htm (accessed July 31, 2014).

Share This




More Earth & Climate News

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Big Waves In Arctic Ocean Threaten Polar Ice

Big Waves In Arctic Ocean Threaten Polar Ice

Newsy (July 30, 2014) Big waves in parts of the Arctic Ocean are unprecedented, mainly because they used to be covered in ice. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle

Raw: Thousands Flocking to German Crop Circle

AP (July 30, 2014) Thousands of people are trekking to a Bavarian farmer's field to check out a mysterious set of crop circles. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

AP (July 30, 2014) A ruptured 93-year-old water main left the UCLA campus awash in 8 million gallons of water in the middle of California's worst drought in decades. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast

In Virginia, the Rise of a New Space Coast

AP (July 30, 2014) Every summer, tourists make the pilgrimage to Chincoteague Island, Va. to see wild ponies cross the Assateague Channel. But, it's the rockets sending to supplies to the International Space Station that are making this a year-round destination. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

More Coverage


Climate Change and the Political, Human Impacts Among Ancient Maya

Nov. 8, 2012 Archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in ... read more
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

    Technology News



      Save/Print:
      Share:

      Free Subscriptions


      Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

      Get Social & Mobile


      Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

      Have Feedback?


      Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
      Mobile: iPhone Android Web
      Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
      Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
      Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins