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

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, December 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Classic Maya civilization rose and fell with the rains.

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.

His team analyzed a stalagmite that grew in Yok Balum Cave from 40 B. …

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