What really wiped out the Mayans?

What really wiped out the Mayans?


Mayan civilization is one of the oldest and the most mysterious civilization of the ancient world. There had been so many stories told about their extinction, most of which are assumptions. British journalist Robin Wylie discussed what may be the actual reason behind their extinction. Today we will publish the third and final part of it.

After a short recovery during the 10th Century (which, interestingly, was coincident with an increase in rainfall), the researchers noticed another slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern Maya territory: stone carving and other building activity seems to have fallen by almost half between AD1000 and 1075. What’s more, just like the crisis 200 years earlier, the researchers discovered that this 11th Century Maya decline also took place against a backdrop of severe drought.And not just any drought. The ones in the 9th Century had certainly been severe. But the 11th Century brought the worst drought that the region had seen for fully 2,000 years – a “megadrought”. After a short recovery there was another slump in construction in the north – against a backdrop of severe drought. Climate records show that rainfall diminished dramatically for the best part of a century, between around AD1020 and 1100 – a snug fit with the archaeologically derived dates for the collapse of the northern Maya. One correlation doesn’t mean much on its own. But find two, and even sceptics might start to whisper “causation”. The 11th Century megadrought had been implicated in the fall of the northern Maya before, but the dating techniques used had given ambiguous ages, making it hard to tell if the timings of the two events really did overlap. The comprehensive analysis published in the December study lets us say with much greater certainty that climate change was contemporaneous with not one, but two devastating periods of Maya decline. If the first wave of droughts had finished off the Maya in the south, it looks like the second wave may have brought on their demise in the north. After this second wave of droughts there was to be no real recovery for the Maya. Chichen Itza and most of the other important centres in the north would never rise again. There would be small but noteworthy exceptions – such as the northern city of Mayapan which flourished from the 13th to 15th centuries – but these would never rival the size and complexity of the Classic Maya cities. In many ways, the 11th Century was the Maya’s last gasp.With these findings, it looks even more likely that climate change played a significant role in the Maya’s downfall. But how?Most archaeological explanations for the collapse involve agriculture. The Maya, like all large civilisations, were heavily dependent on crops for their economic might – and of course to sustain their vast workforce. The simplest explanation for the Maya’s fall is that year-upon-year of low crop yields, brought on by the droughts, may have gradually diminished the Maya’s political influence, eventually leading to full-on societal disintegration. But even advocates of the drought hypothesis admit that the picture is bound to be more nuanced than that.“We know that there was already increased warfare and socio-political instability throughout the Maya area prior to the 9th Century droughts,” says Julie Hoggarth at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who co-led December’s climate analysis.Inter-city conflict is a pretty good way to break up a civilisation too; it’s possible that the Maya just fought themselves apart.

But that still leaves the question of the droughts, and those well fitting dates. Perhaps, then, it was a mixture of the two. As food stocks shrank during the dry decades, competition for resources would probably have become even more intense, perhaps eventually reaching a tipping point which caused the ancient Maya civilisation to fracture irreparably.But there’s at least one other explanation that doesn’t require any warfare. It may not have been the Maya’s dark side that doomed them, but their talents. Because, while the Maya were famously great craftsmen, but they were also environmental sculptors.To grow enough food to feed their millions, the Maya dug huge systems of canals, sometimes hundreds of miles across, which allowed them to drain and elevate the infertile wetlands which cover much of the Maya heartland, producing new arable land (some archaeologists call these “floating gardens”). The Maya also cleared huge tracts of forest, both for agriculture and to make room for their cities.Some scholars think that the Maya’s skilled manipulation of their environment could have had a hand in their eventual collapse, by somehow worsening the impacts of natural climate change. For example, some scholars think that deforestation to clear land for agriculture might have exacerbated localised drying effects, leading to more significant agricultural losses during drought.A more indirect consequence of their agricultural prowess might simply have been that it allowed the population to grow too large, which might have increased their vulnerability to an extended food shortage, and therefore reduced their resistance to a drier climate. Whatever the reason – or reasons – for the Maya’s collapse, we do know something about the fate of the people who were left to face its aftermath. Starting around AD1050, the Maya took to the road. They abandoned the inland regions where their ancestors had thrived, and made their way in droves towards the Caribbean coast, or to other sources of water, such as the lakes and sinkholes which occasionally punctuate the dense green of the Maya’s former territory. The exodus of the Maya people may have been motivated by hunger. If the crops had indeed failed following the 9th and 11th Century droughts, relocating nearer water might have made sense, either to access seafood or to take advantage of the wetter land near the sea. Whatever the reason, moisture was clearly on their minds.But then again, that had always been the case. One of the duties of a Maya ruler was to commune with the gods to ensure a wet year and good harvests. At sites across the Maya world, archaeologists have dredged up human bones from the bottom of lakes and sinkholes – thought to be doorways to the underworld: grim evidence that the people resorted to sacrifice to appease their deities. When the rains were good, and the civilisation blossomed, it must have seemed like their prayers were being answered.
source:Robin Wylie (British Journalist).


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