Climate change linked to civil unrest in Mayan civilization -study

The study examined a tumultuous period of population decline between 1441 and 1461 CE and determined how it was impacted by the climate.

Mayapan (photo credit: PAVEL VOROBIEV/CC BY-SA 3.0/(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Mayapan
(photo credit: PAVEL VOROBIEV/CC BY-SA 3.0/(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A 20-year-long period of civil turmoil in the ancient Mayan city of Mayapan was exacerbated by climate change, a study published Tuesday found.

The earliest archeological evidence of the Mayan civilization dates back to 2600 BCE, and the Maya thrived in modern-day Mexico until contact was made with the Europeans during the 16th century.

The peer-reviewed study, spearheaded by Prof. Douglas Kennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and published in the journal Nature Communications, specifically examined a tumultuous period of population decline between 1441 and 1461 CE and determined how it was impacted by the climate.

Researchers examined archeological, historical and paleoclimate data such as isotope records, radiocarbon data and DNA recovered from human remains and combined climate data with the drought record from local cave deposits. Their findings showed that civil strife increased dramatically during periods of drought.

“Existing factional tensions that developed between rival groups were a key societal vulnerability in the context of extended droughts during this interval,” Kennett said. “Pain, suffering and death resulted from institutional instabilities at Mayapan and the population fragmented and moved back to their homelands elsewhere in the region.”

 The ruins of a Mayan site, called Xiol, are pictured after archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Mayan city filled with palaces, pyramids and plazas on a construction site of what will become an industrial park in Kanasin, near Merida, Mexico May 26, 2022. Picture taken May 26, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/Lorenzo Hernandez) The ruins of a Mayan site, called Xiol, are pictured after archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Mayan city filled with palaces, pyramids and plazas on a construction site of what will become an industrial park in Kanasin, near Merida, Mexico May 26, 2022. Picture taken May 26, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/Lorenzo Hernandez)

Contributing factors

“Our study demonstrates that the convergence of information from multiple scientific disciplines helps us explore big and highly relevant questions like the potential impact of climate change on society and other questions with enormous social implications.”

Prof. Douglas Kennett, University of California, Santa Barbara

The researchers found that the Maya's dependence on corn and subpar irrigation systems, their lack of long-term central grain storage and sociopolitical corruption all contributed to instability.

However, a network of Maya states was able to survive the collapse of Mayapan by migrating to other towns and adapting to new conditions.

“Our study demonstrates that the convergence of information from multiple scientific disciplines helps us explore big and highly relevant questions like the potential impact of climate change on society and other questions with enormous social implications,” Kennett added.