Modern climate change could have a devastating effect on the habitability of large parts of the planet. Through the effects of higher temperatures, quickly rising seas, agricultural failure, drought, increased warfare, rapid climate fluctuations, and shifting weather patterns, modern civilization could be forced through some drastic transformations, or to complete disintegration.
The collapse of the Maya civilization is likely a good mirror for what may occur in the modern world when climatic changes lead to failures in the highly specialized and delicate framework of modern civilization. Modern research has found that the classic Maya civilization collapsed at the end of a long period of wet weather, as it gave way to drought. As the local climate changed, the civilization and its products disintegrated, leading to widespread famine, endemic warfare, and the collapse of cities.
And now new research that has just been finished is providing more insight into the effects that climate change had on the Maya. The research very accurately details a climate record spanning over 2,000 years in the area of modern-day Belize, revealing more about the changing periods of wet and dry weather in which Maya cities developed from 300 to 1000.
The research was done by using the climate data that is contained in stalagmites and the large amounts of archaeological evidence left behind by the Maya. Stalagmites are the mineral deposits that are left behind by the slowly dripping water in caves.
“Unlike the current global warming trend, which is spurred by human activities including the emission of atmosphere-heating greenhouse gases, the change in the Central American climate during the collapse of the Maya civilization was due to a massive, undulating, natural weather pattern.”
“This weather pattern alternately brought extreme moisture, which fostered the growth of the Maya civilization, and periods of dry weather and drought on a centuries-long scale,” said the study’s lead author, Douglas Kennett, an anthropologist at Penn State University.
During the wet periods agriculture expanded and allowed the population and urban centers to grow. This process reinforced the centralized power that the kings of these centers possessed. The kings are known to have claimed credit for the things that the region was dependent on but had no control of, such as the rains and the weather. The supposed mechanism of this influence over the elements were the ritualized public blood sacrifices for which the Maya are well known. Because the power of the kings over their subjects was largely dependent on a favorable climate for agriculture, their rule could be greatly influenced by changes in the climate. It’s very easy to argue that modern civilization is no different — without large-scale agriculture, it’s hard to imagine any semblance of it persisting for long.
When the rains finally did stop, around the year 660, the kings’ power is known to have been largely diminished, and correlated very closely with a large increase in warfare over the now scarce resources.
“You can imagine the Maya getting lured into this trap,” he said. “The idea is that they keep the rains coming, they keep everything together, and that’s great when you’re in a really good period … but when things start going badly, and (the kings are) doing the ceremonies and nothing’s happening, then people are going to start questioning whether or not they should really be in charge.”
“The political collapse of the Maya kings came around the year 900, when prolonged drought undermined their authority. But Maya populations remained for another century or so, when a severe drought lasting from the years 1000 to 1100 forced Maya to leave what used to be their biggest centers of population.”
The Maya also had their own hand in the collapse of their agricultural system. Their farming (like modern farming) led to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. They combated this by intensifying their farming. Using more land and more irrigation, and that in turn caused greater erosion.
“When the climate in the area shifted toward drought, in a long-running pattern called the intertropical conversion zone, it exacerbated human impact on environment,” Kennett said.
“There are some analogies to this in the modern context that we need to worry about,” he said.
It’s predicted that modern climate change could very well undermine agricultural systems throughout large sections of the world, causing widespread famine, warfare, and disease… which these affected populations then export to the surrounding and otherwise unaffected territories, “just as it may have happened in Maya civilization.”
The research was just published in the journal Science on Thursday.
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