Ancient Maya's Fate Tied to Rainfall: Climate Shifts Help Explain Civilization's Prosperity and Decline

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Classic Maya civilization rose and fell with the rains.

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This once majestic society, known for massive pyramids and hieroglyphic writing, expanded during an unusually rainy time and declined as the sky's spigots dried up and periodic droughts arrived, a new study suggests.

A 2,000-year climate record, gleaned from a stalagmite inside a Belize cave, highlights a central role for climate shifts in the ancient civilization's fortunes, say anthropologist Douglas Kennett of Penn State University and his colleagues.

A bounty of rain nurtured Maya agriculture and city building from the years 440 to 660, Kennett's team reports in the Nov. 9 Science. A drying trend and occasional droughts after 660 were accompanied by declining crop yields, increasing warfare among Maya city-states and shifting political centers northward into the Yucatan Peninsula, the researchers say. After the collapse of Maya political systems between 800 and 1000, a severe drought hit southern Belize from 1020 to 1100 and apparently motivated remaining Maya to leave the area.

"It looks like the Maya got lulled by a uniquely rainy period in the early Classic period into thinking that water would always be there," Kennett says. …