Fall of the Mayans

By Ness, John | Newsweek International, March 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Fall of the Mayans


Ness, John, Newsweek International


There's a spine-chilling moment in the film "Titanic," after the ship has struck an iceberg, when an engineer declares disaster to be "a mathematical certainty." Gerald Haug had a similar epiphany of doom one evening at his Zurich home last year. He had put his 3-year-old son to bed at 8 o'clock and then sat down to read "The Great Maya Droughts." The book boldly addressed the biggest mystery in New World archeology-- why the magnificent Mayan civilization, which had flourished for centuries and once had a population in the millions, disappeared so suddenly in the 9th century. The reason, argued author Richardson Gill, was three catastrophic droughts that struck with the consistency of a metronome: in A.D. 810, 860 and 910. Mainstream archeology wasn't having any of Gill's theory, but Haug, a paleoclimatologist whose lab had been taking climate measurements of the same period, found it riveting. At about 2 in the morning, he put down the book and checked the latest results from his lab. The data gave him a jolt: they showed a century ravaged by three successive droughts -- beginning in 810, 860 and 910. "I was bouncing around the living room," says Haug.

Haug's measurements of ancient climate variations in the Cariaco Basin off the coast of Venezuela--hundreds of miles from the Mayan sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, but affected by the same weather patterns--confirmed the existence of Gill's droughts. Haug's research, published last Friday in the U.S. journal Science, has provided the most conclusive evidence to date that a series of droughts in 9th- century Central America was an important cause--perhaps the main cause- -of the collapse of Mayan civilization. The data downplays competing theories that emphasize a complicated interplay of ecology, disease, overpopulation and even class warfare. "Careers were made by coming up with these very complex theories," says Gill.

For the past century archeologists relied on paleontology-centered methods of inquiry that put a premium on digging for artifacts and bones for evidence. Research yielded excellent portraits of Mayan social and economic interactions, but it never answered the Big Question. And it yielded no evidence that climate played much of a role--a big reason why archeologists discounted it. In the 1990s, a chorus of geologists, paleoclimatologists and other scientists began to reconsider. The most strident and unorthodox new voice was Gill, a former banker and freelance archeologist.

As a child growing up in Texas, Gill had seen severe drought. When the Texas economy tanked in the 1980s, he started investigating a hunch that drought killed off the Mayans. Most university archeologists told him respectfully--but plainly--that they didn't think he was looking in the right place. …

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