Climate Change and Drought

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Climate Change and Drought
Source: Climate Change Killed off the Maya Civilization, Study Says, by Stefan Lovgren for National Geographic News, March 13, 2003 (
Around the year 800 AD, great Maya cities spread throughout the jungles of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and south into what is now Honduras and El Salvador. It is believed that15 million people lived and thrived in urban centers like Copan and Tikal. Then, in a period of only ten years, these cities were abandoned. Trees in the jungle covered the cities that were once home to thousands of people. Soon everyone began to forget the glory of the Mayas.
According to a 2003 article published in Science, researchers believe that a significant climate change may have caused Mayans to leave their cities. Soil samples taken from a lake in the Yucatan Peninsula showed that a series of long droughts dried the Mayan lands and caused their crops to die. After studying soil samples, scientists could see that three long droughts occurred between 810 and 910 AD. The timing of these three droughts matched downturns in Mayan building and carving projects. It also coincided with the abandonment of many Mayan cities. Experts believe the Maya, were especially vulnerable to droughts, because 95% of their cities completely relied on lakes, ponds, and rivers for drinking water and farming. Although the Mayans made reservoirs (manmade lakes) to store water in many of their cities, it is believed that these reservoirs could have only held enough water to supply them for around 18 months. If scientists today are correct about there being three long droughts between 810 and 910 AD, it is doubtful that the Mayans would have been able to save enough water to farm or even drink within their cities.
When looking for the cause of this drought, many scientists have looked toward the sun. It is believed that the sun’s heat intensifies every 206 years and leads to drought in many areas that normally receive a lot of rain. Not surprisingly, the years between 810-910 AD fall within a time period when the sun was believed to be more intense.


Fatal Rivalries
Source: National Geographic, August 2007, Vol. 212, Issue 2, p96-109
Researchers in Guatemala have discovered a bone-chilling site in the middle of an important ancient city. Within the ruins of Cancuén (an ancient Mayan city), researchers say a terrifying massacre must have taken place 1,200 years ago. Researchers believe the bones of over 31 people may give clues as to why some Mayans may have left their cities around the year 900 A.D.

A team led by Arthur Demarest, a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, uncovered 31 skeletons buried in an ancient reservoir that once provided water to the people of Cancuén. (Reservoirs were and are man-made lakes that are used to keep water for a city).

"When archaeologists started excavating (the site), they started hitting bones, and then more bones, and then more bones, and we then began to realize that the entire bottom half of this reservoir was filled with human bodies," Demarest says. While looking at the bones, it quickly became clear that these people were mutilated, decapitated and killed in a merciless attack.

Curiously all around the bodies there were precious stones and jewelry -- including jade, carved shells and jaguar-fang necklaces. This led the team to conclude that the people massacred in this reservoir had been nobles.

In a shallow grave only 80 yards away from the reservoir where 31 bodies had been found, researchers made another unsettling discovery. They found two people who appeared to be the king and queen of Cancuén! The couple was fully dressed in clothing that a king and queen would wear. One of the skeletons even had a necklace on it that said, "Kan Maax. Holy Lord of Cancuén.”

Finding evidence of the slaughter was like stumbling upon "a critical moment in the collapse of Maya civilization," Demarest says. “It tells us that in 800 AD, this great center of trade was attacked.”

The attack itself seems to have been expected. After looking in several other parts of the city, archaeologists found that there were walls and other barricades that had been broken during the attack. Perhaps Lord Kan Maax had seen the attack coming and tried to prepare his city for the invasion. In any case, it seems Lord Kan Maax’s defenses were too late. Whoever the invaders were, they not only broke the defenses, they also defaced and destroyed many of the city’s statues.

When looking at the placement of the dead nobles and lord, Demarest says the attacker’s purpose was clear. “They wanted to poison the wells.” The decaying bodies of the city’s nobles would have undoubtedly contaminated the city’s water beyond use. The bigger mystery, Demarest says, is who committed this massacre. Demarest says the most likely culprits were warriors of other Mayan cities. It is known that the warriors of different Mayan cities would sometimes attack each other out of jealousy, greed or revenge. Whatever the true reason why Cancuén was attacked, it is clear is that the attackers were not killing these nobles to become rich. They were attacking the town to kill its leaders and devastate its population. In all, recent discoveries in Cancuén strengthen theories that Mayans were attacking each other’s cities near the same time that many Mayan cities were being abandoned. The attacks in Cancuén seem strikingly similar to the invasions of other Mayan cities like Copan, Bonampak and Palenque.


Overuse of Soil
Source: National Geographic, August 2007, Vol. 212, Issue 2, p96-109
Mayan farmers were experts at agriculture. They were masters of restoring nutrients to the ground and producing a great deal of food from their soils. Mayan peasants would slash and burn the rainforest and then wait for the ashy nutrients to go deep into the soil before they would farm. When farmers let the land rest, they are trying to make it fallow (fallow means the land was well rested and nutrient rich). These farmers knew that over-farming could ruin the soil and make it impossible to grow on again.

When scientists look at dirt today, they can tell a lot about what happened in the past. One thing that scientists have found while looking at soil samples from Meso-America is that at least three terrible droughts occurred between the years of 810 and 910 AD. During these droughts Mayan peasants may have panicked. Water became scarce and their lands began to go dry. The peasants may have worried because they were the ones who were responsible for growing corn, squash and beans for the entire city. In this panic, Mayan peasants may have made some terrible mistakes.

Instead of letting their farmlands rest so they could become fallow, peasants probably began to farm their same lands over and over again. This drained all of the nutrients from the land and made the soil weak.

While some cities near rivers may not have been affected by the drought, other cities like Tikal (which was far from any natural lakes or rivers) must have been bone dry. Scientists from our time can tell that the drought led the peasants to do things that they would not normally do. In a panic, the peasants began to cut down more of the rainforest and put seeds in lands that were not yet ready to farm. Soil that was once allowed to rest was farmed repeatedly until it became dry as dust.

With fewer crops being grown every year, problems that the Mayans may have never predicted could have come true. The higher classes may have forced the peasants to farm lands over and over again. Peasants may have become angry with their lords for ordering them to ruin the lands. People may have left a number of great Mayan cities because they believed the land could no longer provide for them.

Peasant Revolt

Archeologists who dig up ancient cities have found that the Mayans were their most powerful from 730-790 A.D. During these years, the Mayans built enormous pyramids, large temples and wide ball courts. Although these buildings would have made cities look beautiful, not everyone was happy about them. Historians believe that the people who built these pyramids would have been angry about the hard work they were forced to perform. Members of the lower classes, slaves and peasants, may have become sick and tired of lifting heavy rocks and constructing enormous temples for the rich priests and lords who ruled their cities. As a result, many of these peasants may have revolted or decided to fight against the higher classes.

One historian, Eric S. Thompson, believes there are many clues to support the idea that the peasants revolted. Thompson points to incomplete buildings in many Mayan cities as clues of an ancient peasant revolt. At some time, Thompson believes peasants threw down their tools and began to fight against those in power. To Thompson, this would explain why many Mayan buildings were never completed. In some cities archeologists have found that buildings were not just incomplete, but apparently burned. To Thompson, this indicates that peasants must have burned the temples and homes of priests and other, higher classes.

Maya Collapse Theory 1:

Blood of Kings
Source: Blood of Kings Video
Within the documentary Blood of Kings, a number of scientists, historians, and archaeologists theorize about what may have caused the Mayan people to abandon their cities and move into the tropical rainforests of Meso-America. While trying to solve this mystery, the researchers examine the Mayan religion and how the religion itself could have caused people to lose faith in their kings and ultimately move away from their cities.
Researchers look carefully at the beliefs the Mayan people had about their kings. Mayan kings or “Lords” as they were most often called, were responsible for keeping the people of their city safe. The way in which they would protect their people was to offer their blood to the gods. It was believed that a blood offering from a lord would keep the gods happy and healthy. When the gods of rain and sunlight were happy, the city’s farms would prosper and give food to everyone within the city.
For hundreds of years this system seemed to work for the Mayans. From 250-800 AD, Mayan cities grew in glory and power. The Mayans excelled in science, astronomy, and architecture. However, around the year 800, a sudden shift in the climate began to change the Mayans’ world. A devastating drought began to spread throughout the Mayan lands. All of a sudden, the lords of major Mayan cities seemed to have no power over the gods. No matter how much they sacrificed or gave blood, crops continued to die and people continued to starve.
The people of the great Mayan cities began to lose faith in their lords. They began to look at their lords as failures or frauds. Nothing that their kings did could convince them that life would become better. The Mayan gods seemed to be ignoring them. Some may have questioned whether their gods even existed. In the years between 810-910 AD, the Mayan people abandoned their cities and began to live off of the land in the rainforest. Never again would the Mayans achieve what they had once been so proud of.

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