The most severe drought in the past 7,000 years might have contributed to the mysterious collapse of the thriving Mayan civilization.
Scholars are trying to understand why the Mayan civilization in the southern Yucatan Peninsula collapsed around the years 750 to 900, when it was clearly thriving as late as the year 700.
Now scientists have found evidence that around the time that major Mayan cities were abandoned and left in ruins, the area around a local lake was suffering through its worst drought in the last 7,200 years.
That may have been one reason for the collapse, researcher Jason Curtis said Wednesday.
A geology student at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Curtis describes signs of drought in ancient mud from the bottom of the lake in an article with other scientists in today’s issue of the journal Nature.
Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, called the finding an important step toward understanding the Mayan downfall.
Other research shows that no single factor can be blamed, but rather, “the picture we’re building up is a whole series of strains,” he said.
The strains include a growing population, warfare between cities, military threats on the Mayan borders and environmental degradation, such as the cutting down of vast areas of the jungle that led to increasing erosion.
“Drought in and of itself would not have caused a thriving civilization to abandon some of its major cities,” he said. “But if it’s added to these other major burdens, if you’re already having difficulties feeding the general population, increased drying of the climate would have a much more severe impact than usual.”
Nations are still struggling with problems such as population growth, local warfare and growing populations, raising the question of how much a nation can handle before natural events cause it to collapse, he said.
Flooding, earthquakes or climatic shifts brought on by global warming might “be enough to push civilizations over the edge, where the governments could not maintain food distribution, protection of their people and trade,” he said.