Climate Change and the Maya Civilization

Abstract

The civilization of the Maya was one of the greatest societies in ancient Mesoamerica, and inhabited Central America and south Mexico, primarily Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras.  They created some of the most architecturally amazing structures in the world, developed sophisticated ideas about mathematics and astronomy, as well as a highly accurate calendar.    They created large elaborate cities and some estimate a total population of 15 million.  The Maya were, however, unprepared for the climate change that likely contributed to the collapse of their civilization.  Scientists hypothesize that the Maya experienced increasing aridity and significant droughts that proved to be catastrophic.  Proxy records indicate that deforestation and over use of the land occurred.  It is most likely that climatic changes together with social variables were ultimately to blame for their decline.

The civilization of the Maya was one of the greatest societies in ancient Mesoamerica, and inhabited Central America and south Mexico, primarily Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras from about 1500 B. C. to 1500 A. D.  They created some of the most architecturally amazing structures in the world, developed sophisticated ideas about mathematics and astronomy, as well as a highly accurate calendar.  Exceptional pottery, sculptures, paintings, and architecture were generated.  They created large elaborate cities and some estimate a total population of 15 million.  The Maya were, however, unprepared for the climate change that likely contributed to the collapse of their civilization.  Scientists hypothesize that the Maya experienced increasing aridity and significant droughts that proved to be catastrophic.  It is most likely that these climatic changes together with social variables were ultimately to blame for their decline.  Today the Maya legacy is one full of mystery.

History

Maya history can be divided into several phases, starting with the Formative or Pre-Classic Period (circa 1500 B.C. to circa 200 A.D.).  During this time, the Maya civilization expanded, hierarchy arose, and pyramids were erected.  Simple hieroglyphic writing and a primitive calendar originated.  From about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., the Maya reached their peak expansion, know as the Classic Period.  At this time, the tropical rainforests of the lowlands of northern Guatemala was the Maya’s nerve center.  Eventually, around 900 A.D., the beginning of the Post-Classic Period, which lasted until about 1500 A. D., the Maya inhabiting this central region left for the north and south, ending up in the lowlands of the Yucatan and the southern Guatemala highlands.  Maya near the seacoasts became more prosperous as sea trade increased.  Chichén Itzá became the most powerful and successful city, dominating the Yucatan until being replaced by Mayapan.  Mayapan was then defeated by other Maya cities, which divided the Yucatan into warring city-states.  At the end of the Post-Classic Period in the 16th century, Catholic Spaniards conquered most of the surviving Maya for religious reasons.

Maya locations

Maya in the southern lowlands and in the highlands collapsed before the Maya in the northern and eastern lowlands.   Many northern lowland sites not only survived the decline in rainfall and the subsequent drought conditions, but also thrived, in Chichén Itzá for example.  Chichén Itzá was able to adapt perhaps for political and religious reasons, while Maya in the highlands in Guatemala collapsed.  The southern lowlands and highlands collapsed, but the northern and eastern lowlands thrived (Shaw, 2003).  Elevation increases as one goes south, so the northern region is flatter and closer to the water table.  The northern region is also home to many cenotes, which are flooded caves that are a part of an ancient underwater river system.

Maya culture

Maya culture was very rich and flourished for a while during the Pre-Classic Period until the major cities of the lowlands were abandoned, and then again during the Classic Period.  The Maya were religious people, worshipping more than 160 gods and goddesses whom they regarded as both dangerous to as well as aiding their daily lives.  Many religious ceremonies and rituals, such as fasting, prayer, blood-letting, and sacrifices, were conducted in order to elicit help from various gods and goddesses.  Maya families were very tight-knit and entire families lived together.  The males did the farm work, hunting and fishing, while the females raised the children and tended to the home.

Agriculture

Maya farmers were very skilled and successful, growing enough staple foods such as beans, corn and squash to support large populations of people.  Corn was the primary crop grown.  They even dug canals, raised fields, and built terraces to improve their harvests.  Eventually, though, an imbalance developed between the ever-growing Maya population and its agricultural production capacity.  The population in the southern lowlands peaked at around 800 A.D. with an estimated 3 to 10 million people, one of the most densely populated regions of the ancient world.   Thus, the land utilized by the Maya was under great agricultural strain.  “Slash and burn” or swidden were farming techniques used.  However, archaeologists have recently discovered population densities ranging anywhere from 250 to 1500 people per square mile.  The most densely populated country in Africa, Rwanda, has a population density of 750 people per square mile.  Consequently, the ancient Maya yielded crop production beyond what was possible with swidden techniques alone.  Farmers who practice “slash and burn” or swidden today say that even with regular intervals of fallow, the soil is degraded over time, yielding fewer crops and becoming less fertile.  Due to overuse of the land and deforestation, the environmental conditions may have deteriorated to the point where the enormous Maya population could no longer be supported.  Analysis of bones indicates that the population became increasingly unhealthy.

Deforestation

Forests are a primary source of protein and pharmacology.  They provide game, and the Maya to this day rely heavily on jungle herbs and drugs.  The Maya were greater builders than the Egyptians.  The massive public works projects that they undertook, particularly the building of pyramids, resulted in further destruction of forests.  According to archaeologists, all of these massive structures were covered in a thick coat of lime-based plaster.  This plaster was then smoothed and painted in a variety of bright vibrant colors.  In order to produce vast quantities of lime-based plaster, enormous amounts of limestone had to be heated and then processed into lime.  This was a huge industry that had an insatiable appetite for lumber.  At the end of the Late Classic period, little was left of the forests around and between the cities.  Evidence of this has been interpreted from proxy records such as pollen samples and lake cores, which reveal a high rate of deforestation.  Pollen from crops, weeds, and secondary growth were observed, while scant amounts of pollen from mature forests were observed.  Deforestation results in significantly increased soil erosion, which causes nutrient depletion in arable land.  Deforestation results in reduced precipitation (Hutjes et al., 1998), and a drier and warmer climate (Ghuman

& Lal, 1987a, 1987b; Laurance 1998;  Shukla et al., 1990;  Walker et al.,

1995) due to an albedo change (O’Brien, 1996).  This contributed to the

decline of many Maya city-states.

Climate

Most of the Maya people lived in the Yucatan, which experiences a Caribbean climate.  In a Caribbean climate, precipitation is affected by the seasonal fluctuations of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (Hodell, Brenner,

Curtis, Medina-González, Ildefonso-Chan Can, Albornaz-Pat, Guilderson, 2005).  Hodell et al. also stated in their article:

“We studied a 5.1-m sediment core from Aguada X’caamal (20° 36.6′N, 89° 42.9′W), a small sinkhole lake in northwest Yucatan, Mexico. Between 1400 and 1500 A.D., oxygen isotope ratios of ostracod and gastropod carbonate increased by an average of 2.2‰ and the benthic foraminifer Ammonia beccarii parkinsonianaappeared in the sediment profile, indicating a hydrologic change that included increased lake water salinity. Pollen from a core in nearby Cenote San José Chulchacá showed a decrease in mesic forest taxa during the same period. Oxygen isotopes of shell carbonate in sediment cores from Lakes Chichancanab (19° 53.0′N, 88° 46.0′W) and Salpeten (16° 58.6′N, 89° 40.5′W) to the south also increased in the mid-15th century, but less so than in Aguada X’caamal. Climate change in the 15th century is also supported by historical accounts of cold and famine described in Maya and Aztec chronicles. We conclude that climate became drier on the Yucatan Peninsula in the 15th century A.D. near the onset of the Little Ice Age (LIA). Comparison of results from the Yucatan Peninsula with other circum-Caribbean paleoclimate records indicates a coherent climate response for this region at the beginning of the LIA. At that time, sea surface temperatures cooled and aridity in the circum-Caribbean region increased.”

​Lachniet, Burns, Piperno, Asmerom, Polyak, Moy, Christenson (2004) reported evidence indicating a weakened monsoon from 1100 to 1200 A. D. and from 750 to 950 A. D., which was the end of the Maya civilization, and diminishing and unstable rainfall from 550 A. D., using a high-resolution oxygen isotope ratio record that they collected from a stalagmite from the Isthmus of Panama.

Evidence from the northern Yucatan (i.e. Lake Chichancanab) has indicated prolonged arid conditions throughout the Maya region from around 750 A.D. to 800 A.D.  Haug, Hughen, Aeschlimann, Günther, Peterson, & Sigman (2003) reported findings, using a seasonally resolved record of titanium from annually laminated sediments from the anoxic Cariaco Basin of the southern Caribbean off northern Venezuela, which indicate that an extended regional dry period occurred, in addition to droughts, during the Terminal Classic Period when the Maya civilization collapsed.   Their data analyses suggest that this was a result of a century-scale decline in precipitation.  Their analyses of titanium concentrations in sediments also indicate that during the Medieval Warm Period (circa 930 A.D. to 1150 A.D.), conditions were wet, and during the “Little Ice Age” (circa 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D.), conditions were dry, (Haug, Hughen, Aeschlimann, Günther, Peterson, & Sigman, 2003).

The Maya did experience cycles of drought and even understood and their patterns.  Droughts and fluctuations in rainfall occurred, but the Maya recovered from climatic changes that were less profound than those that ultimately brought about the end of the Maya civilization.  Drought conditions did not uniformly affect all of the regions that the Maya inhabited, perhaps explainable by irregular anthropogenic deforestation (Shaw, 2003).

Climate changes, including those linked to the agricultural situation, at the end of the Late Classic Period, along with natural disasters, could have been devastating.  Some of the proxy records that have been analyzed for evidence of climatic conditions are bones, pollen from crops, weeds, and secondary growth.

Social organization, culture, wars, and social stresses

Droughts alone did not cause the downfall of the Maya civilization, but contributed significantly, as well as did social stresses such as warfare between city-states.  There were political and religious differences between Maya of different locations.  Maya Kings were regarded as Shamens because they were purported to have an ability to contact and influence the realm of the supernatural.  They were thought to have a direct link to Chaac, the god of rain, and when it did not rain, the kings were overthrown or replaced.  When life for the commoners became increasingly difficult, their confidence in their leaders dwindled.  The sophisticated society of the Maya depended upon a secure government.  Tension existed throughout the social hierarchy between higher and lower classes, the elites and the farmers.  Initially when the Maya civilization began to decline, the lower classes suffered while the higher classes maintained their standard of living.  The stability of the Maya civilization began to fall apart.  In the end, this society in general was not equipped to overcome the environmental adversity it faced.

Combination of and chain of events

The cultural, political and social context combined with problems of deforestation, overuse of the land, and drought contributed to the collapse of the Maya civilization around 900 A. D.  Overpopulation, agricultural strain, warfare.  They were however, an ancient society living in a very different world than the one we now know.  Present day Maya are a minority group who are economically disadvantaged and with little political power compared to the rest of Central Americans (e.g. Mexico).  Literacy rates are low and infant mortality rates are high.  Some do not even have access to potable water.

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