Climate change, drought and civil strife behind the collapse of the Maya?

Fossils suggest that climate change may have contributed to the rise and fall of many ancient civilizations

By Kieran N. Kumar

Archaeologists have identified the disturbances that caused Mexico’s prehistoric Maya city to collapse into a prolonged drought, unleashed by climate change, mirroring similar findings elsewhere about the demise of ancient civilizations.

In the Maya, between 1441 and 1461 AD, social and political conflict reached its climax – suggesting that drought caused by climate change may have ignited the civil strife that sparked the violence.

Read: Vanishing islands: the inevitable climate change (July 29, 2022)

This, in turn, has led to institutional collapse, instability and eventual extinction, according to new research by anthropologist and Professor Douglas Kennett of the University of California Santa Barbara and his team of experts in the fields of archaeology, history, geography and earth sciences.

The researchers examined archaeological data, including isotope records, radiocarbon data and DNA sequences from human remains, to document the period of the disturbances between 1400 and 1450 CE. They then used regional sources of climatic data and combined it with a more recent local record of drought from cave deposits under the city.

“The current partisan tensions that have arisen between rival groups have been a major societal weakness in the context of the prolonged drought during this period,” Kennett said.

Kenneth said the weaknesses revealed in the data are rooted in the Maya’s dependence on rain-fed maize, a lack of long-term central grain storage, scant investments in irrigation and a socio-political system led by elite families.

Read: The Gulf of Mexico escaped climate change 56 million years ago (June 3, 2022)

However, they adapted and persisted in the early 1500s before going extinct, reflecting the complexity of human responses to drought in the Yucatan Peninsula where the Maya civilization persisted, the authors said.

Other Civilizations and Climate Change
The latest technologies, innovations, and combinations of satellite imagery or remote sensing data to DNA analysis have helped anthropologists and archaeologists see the impossible underground and find links between climate change and collapse.

In the case of the Mayas and other lost cities in Central and South America, the massive Amazon jungle grew rapidly over ancient buildings obscuring structures, until scientists discovered in satellite images of differences in vegetation patterns to locate them.

Even the fabled city of Ubar came to light when in 1982 NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) began researching using computers to improve images taken at visible and infrared wavelengths, as well as using radar.

Read: 500 Global Young Changemakers to Discuss Water and Climate Change (March 17, 2021)

They were able to look up to 15 feet below the surface of dry sand to analyze the sizes and proportions of dust, rocks and sand grains, along with city limits and roads.

“When we dig up the remains of past civilizations, we rarely find any evidence that they collectively made any attempts to change in the face of a dry climate, warm weather, or other changes. I see this inflexibility as the real cause of the collapse,” says Dr. Jason Orr of Harvard University. .

Read: Civil conflict caused by drought among the ancient Maya (July 19, 2022)

Finally, the fossils are revealing more evidence that changes in climate – large and small – are at least partially responsible for the rise and fall of many ancient civilizations.

Now that drought has been linked to the fall of the Mayan civilization around AD 900, so was the demise of the spectacular Cambodian city of Angkor in the early 14th century AD or the Egyptian civilization 4200 years ago.

Since our way of life depends on a stable climate, it is time for modern humans to learn the lessons of the collapsed civilizations of the past and adapt better to survive in the future.

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