The Maya empire was located in three modern states, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Those who are interested in history often wonder what might have happened to the Mayans. How did they disappear so suddenly?
One of the possible answers might be found in the weather.
An international study
The role of climate change has been debated for decades in the history of the period from roughly the classical Maya civilisation, which was present from about 300 to 1000 AD but it never gave satisfying explanations for what happened to the Mayans.
But a few years ago an international team of archaeologists and geologists succeeded in determining the amount of precipitation that fell in the classical Maya area and compared it with indicators of war events recorded on stone buildings by studying limestone artefacts. So it is possible that the classical Maya culture flourished during the rainy centuries, but collapsed irreparably when the climate turned arid.
The war indicator was based on the frequency of certain keywords in Mayan inscriptions on carved stone structures. This allowed researchers to show how the dry periods were linked to an increase in the number of wars and social unrest.
The climatic analysis based on dropstones was combined with an analysis of the frequency of rainy seasons inscribed on temple walls and there was also consistency.
The data nicely illustrated how civilisation had flourished and had developed, creating large cities in the period of favourable climate, and then collapsed as a result of climate change between 660 and 1100. The Maya rulers created certain structures to record events, and researchers have found in the texts that between 660 and 900 there is increasing evidence of rivalries, warfare and strategic alliances as the climate became drier.
According to Professor Douglas Kennet, the unusually high rainfall between 450 and 660 facilitated and increased food production, leading to an explosion in population. This led to the flourishing of cities like Tikal, Copan and Caracol in the Maya lowlands. Their climate data showed that this period of abundance had been followed by four centuries of general drought, exacerbated by a series of major droughts. This may have led to a decline in agricultural productivity and contributed to social and political collapse. The most severe drought (1020-1100) occurred after the Mayan collapse and probably contributed to a significant decline in the population of the area.
Based on the theory of the team, over the centuries, the cities became increasingly depopulated and the Maya kings lost power and influence. The social tragedy and human suffering of a 16th-century persistent drought, crop failure, death, starvation and displacement in Mexico may have been a terrible experience for the Maya.
Problems with the theory
The problem is with this theory is that there are not enough authentic climatic and archaeological records. The effects of climate change are complex and long-lasting processes so sudden climate change must be only part of the story. In addition to the drying of the climate and drought, the social complexity and population growth that preceded set the stage for the subsequent shock to society and the breakdown of political institutions.