Extreme weather destroyed Maya civilisation

The Classic Maya culture may have collapsed one thousand years ago because it failed to cope with climate change, a new study has found.

Updated: Nov 09, 2012, 14:43 PM IST

Washington: The Classic Maya culture may have collapsed one thousand years ago because it failed to cope with climate change, a new study has found.

Decades of extreme weather crippled and ultimately decimated, first the political culture and later the human population of the ancient Maya, according to the study by researchers including two University of California scientists.

They thrived during rainy periods but latest research shows that a prolonged drought somewhere between 800 AD and 1100 brought about its collapse.

Researchers combined a precise climatic record of the Maya environment and its political history to provide a better understanding of the role weather had in Maya`s downfall.

"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," he said in a statement.

The study tapped the extensive Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project, run by linguist Martha Macri, a professor of Native American studies at UC.

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.

However, the monuments made no mention of ecological events, such as storms, drought or reference to crop failures.

Researchers collected a stalagmite from a cave in Belize, less than 1.6 km from the Maya site of Uxbenka and about 29 Km from three other important centers.
Using oxygen isotope dating in 0.1 millimetre 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 AD 300 and 660. A climate reversal and drying trend between AD 660 and 1000 triggered political competition, increased warfare, overall socio-political instability, and political collapse.

This was followed by an extended drought between AD 1020 and 1100 that likely corresponded with crop failures, death, famine, migration and, ultimately, the collapse of the Maya population.