We May Finally Know Why Ancient Maya Collapsed

History

| LAST UPDATE 07/21/2022

By Stanley Wickens
Ancient Maya climate change
Julian Wijata via Getty Images

Across history, humans have seen the rise and fall of civilizations all over the world - and one of them was the Ancient Maya. A recent study has revealed a possible explanation for why this ancient civilization collapsed.

A look into the history of the Maya people - which dates back to the 13th century, nearly 80 years ago - hints that a drought may have been the downfall of their civilization. Researchers suspect that the severe change in climate may have brought political unrest to the city of Mayapan in the Yucatán Peninsula. This would have then caused a political collapse in the region, forcing people to set out to begin their lives anew in smaller and safer settlements. 

Ancient Mayan civilization collapse
Luis Dafos via Getty Images
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In their study, the researchers analyzed human remains for indications of traumatic injury that may suggest conflict. They found that, during periods of increased drought, there were also significant signs of increased conflict. "Multiple data sources indicate that civil conflict increased significantly, and generalized linear modeling correlates strife in the city with drought conditions between 1400 and 1450 CE," the researchers stated. "We argue that prolonged drought escalated rival factional tensions, but subsequent adaptations reveal region-scale resiliency, ensuring that Maya political and economic structures endured until European contact in the early 16th century CE." These people fled to other, more prosperous parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, and helped preserve the Maya culture after the fall of the Mayapan. However, despite these signs of a "resilient system of human-environmental adaptations," researchers warn there's a limit to how far these adaptations can take us. Part of their research is dedicated to reading history as a sort of guide for the present.

In other words, researchers are not only looking at this newly discovered information as a useful insight into the history of the Maya people, but also as a warning sign for our modern age. They conclude that climatic problems can quickly turn into political ones and that they can ultimately take down even the most powerful of nations. "Archaeological and historical records are well suited for examining past societal effects of climate crises over long-term cycles," warned the researchers. "The Maya region offers the breadth and depth of archaeological, historical, and climate records essential for studying correlations between social change and fluctuating climate conditions." So, is history doomed to repeat itself, or will we learn from the mistakes of the past? Guess only time will tell...

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