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The collapse of the Ancient Maya civilisation occurred over a 200-year period in the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America, between the 8th and 9th century (Ancient Apocalypse, 2015). The Maya covers most of today’s Mexico and the countries of Upper Central America (Demarest, 2008). It has been thought that climate change may have played a part in the collapse (Hodell, Curtis and Brenner, 1995). However, evidence of climate change cannot fully explain the collapse, suggesting that there are other factors that come into consideration. This essay will critically evaluate what caused the collapse of the Ancient Maya civilisation, including drought, regional topography and water availability to anthropogenic factors such as population, deforestation, agriculture and political and social factors.
Drought can be proposed as one of the main theories that caused the collapse. There were multi-year droughts during the Terminal Classic Period, for example in 810AD, 860AD and in 910AD (Haug et al., 2003). Such droughts lasted for 3-9 years. This decline in rainfall may have increased the stress on resources that supported over 13 million people (Haug et al., 2003), reducing both drinking and agricultural water availability. Thus, supporting the idea that drought could have brought the Maya to a point of abandonment due to resources being inaccessible to many communities. One study found low levels of titanium (Ti) at slab depths of 12, 38, 58 and 78mm, showing evidence for separate multi-year drought in the Maya region (Haug et al., 2003). Multi-year drought may have caused significant disruption as the Maya lowlands only receive rainfall for 4/5 months of the year (Ancient Apocalypse, 2015), meaning that they would have needed to find a way to effectively store less water over longer periods of time. The principle of uniformitarianism may help link what caused the collapse. For example, there were severe droughts in the Maya region in the early 1900s (Ancient Apocalypse, 2015). During this time, the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) was at its most southern point and places to the north of the ITCZ naturally experience hot, dry weather (Medina-Elizalde and Rohling, 2012). The location of the ITCZ varies throughout the year, creating this idea of dry and wet weather cycles across the lowlands and contributing towards drought. This can help to reflect what happened during the time of collapse as droughts in the early 1900s represent the same pattern in 900AD. The lowlands were subject to frequent hurricane strikes as well, which had the capacity to wipe out crops and produce forest fires over both local and widespread areas (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012).
But it is hard to prove why climate change caused the collapse in the ninth century when the civilisation had survived through so many before. For example, the earliest droughts occurred in the Late Preclassic (150-250 AD) where there were only temporary declines in population and social upheaval before they continued to flourish (Beach, Luzzadder-Beach and Cook, 2016). This shows that the Maya have dealt with drought before. So why did drought in the ninth century cause complete abandonment? And why did some regions collapse after others? This may possibly be because the Maya had developed strategies to accumulate and store water (Haug et al., 2003). For example, quarries and excavations were converted to reservoirs to ensure water was available for long periods. Some areas did have more access to water than others due to the general topography of the land. Likewise, the process of multisite and regional abandonment in the Terminal Classic Period played out over 125 years (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012) – suggesting that different areas were more vulnerable to drought than others and that drought may not be the only driver of the collapse. In general, the south had low-lying, year-round access to water through springs and endless streams; the north had sinkholes that breached groundwater tables (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). But, the elevated interior region (EIR) heavily relied on capturing and storing rainwater as their access to groundwater was inadequate. More specifically, many reservoirs were built in the great cities of Tikal and Caracol (Beach et al., 2015). However, after the reoccurrence of droughts lasting over 9 years, these systems may not have been sufficient to maintain enough water to support an ever-growing population. Furthermore, the northwest Yucatan received 500mm of rain per year, unlike the southern mountains who experienced over 3000mm per year (Medina-Elizalde and Rohling, 2012). Regional abandonment may not have been just because of drought – it may have been because an area became more attractive than another in terms of water availability. The EIR was the centre of Maya civilisation, however droughts may have caused water storage to diminish due to the rapid decrease in rainfall, so the area became unattractive towards the Maya and may suggest that they decided to live, trade and farm near places that had sustainable water sources (Beach, Luzzadder-Beach and Cook, 2016). This creates the idea that the depopulation of the lowlands may have started in the EIR but did not involve complete abandonment. This evidence may also suggest that climate change created several problems that led to the collapse, instead of being the sole driver of it.
Humans have been the dominant driver of ecological change in the Maya lowlands (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). The Pre-Classic period (150AD) saw the first major cities built in the Maya lowlands, and by 750AD they had a population of 13 million (Haug et al., 2003). One reason as to why drought may not have such a large impact on the Mayan civilisation during the Pre-Classic period could be due to its population; a reduction in rainfall cannot really affect a smaller population as they still had access to local streams and groundwater, meaning that they’re more likely to survive through a period with little rainfall. As population increased, the reliance on rainfall and natural resources may have risen. Sediment in the Mirador basin and nearby lakes indicate that this area experienced widespread deforestation and soil erosion during the times of the Maya (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). Trees were cut down to be used as timber as well as to free up space for agricultural uses. Although this method may have been beneficial in the short-term, continuous deforestation creates disruption in natural habitats. Such disruption may involve soil erosion. Because the land is free of trees, there is more direct contact with soil and the atmosphere. The trees may have acted as a protective layer to the soil, preventing it from becoming saturated by precipitation. When soil in the tropics meets any form of precipitation, it can cause the soil to erode into local streams, causing many problems in the hydrological cycle. This in turn can decrease the quality of both soil and water. On the other hand, many types of terracing were used to conserve soils when population was at its greatest (Beach et al., 2006). Terracing involves cultivating crops in hilly or mountainous regions through creating vertical steps to prevent soil erosion (Omondi, 2017). The Maya attempted to conserve their land to prevent such erosion. But is it possible that the collapse came before they could completely conserve the land? It may have been the case that the Maya had acknowledged the affect they were having on the environment, but the damage caused could have become unfixable.
The Maya relied on agriculture as one of their main sources of food (Hodell, Curtis and Brenner, 1995). Both climate change and anthropogenic factors could have influenced the quality of crops. Soil erosion from deforestation could have easily reduced the quality in the soil as the structure would have become damaged and there would have been a reduction in organic matter (Butler, 2012), therefore the quality of crops would already be low. The Maya relied on rainfall cycles to support agricultural production (Haug et al., 2003), and 80% of rainfall occurred between late May to November (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). This means that there was already quite severe rationing of crops for such a large population over the winter period, so the multi-year droughts during the Terminal Classic Period did not help when it came to crop production. Lack of rainfall could have led to crop failure, providing nothing for the Maya. This lack of food for the civilisation could have led to abandonment in certain regions as they may have been unable to survive in such conditions. This proves that anthropogenic factors were just as important as climate change for what caused the collapse.
Another factor that may have contributed towards the collapse could have been the Maya society. They had a dynastic kingship, where families were powerful rulers and could communicate with Gods (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). During times of drought, the locals may have gone to the kings in hope that they could ask the Gods to provide rainfall to fix their problems. Once they realised that the kings were unable to do this, there was social upheaval. Archaeologists found remains of 30 bodies, ranging from children to adults, that were all related and had been murdered (Ancient Apocalypse, 2015). This shows that it got to a point where climate change caused people of the Maya to turn against each other, first by murdering some of the most powerful people there. This lack of power could have left the Maya at the most vulnerable point they had ever been at, as there was no one left to control the civilisation, possibly leading to war over resources between regions. For example, there was violent competition over water control in the Three Rivers, where towns were slaughtered and burned (Dunning, Beach and Luzzadder-Beach, 2012). Mass murder from war could have contributed towards the reduction in population and the collapse of a civilisation. And so, those locals that had survived would have had to leave and seek home elsewhere, leading to abandonment. This shows that the Maya had become so desperate that they were willing to hurt their own people just to live, creating social stress upon a community that was once thriving. This provides strong evidence that climate change may have caused numerous social, political and environmental factors that led to the collapse.
After gathering all of this evidence, two questions come into play: were they operating at a capacity that the environment just could not handle? And did the environment become too hostile for such a complex civilisation? As the population gradually increased, the amount of resources available per person would decrease – there just wasn’t enough for everyone, explaining why there was regional abandonment and migration. They’d taken advantage of the environment to a point where they just could not make use of anything else – leaving infertile soil for crops and damaged cities from mass sacrifices, for example.
To conclude, there is evidence to support the fact that climate change caused the collapse of the Maya civilisation. Such evidence involves multi-year droughts, which reduced the already small amount of rainfall that the Maya receive annually. Droughts can have an influence on water availability for different regions – specifically the EIR as they heavily relied upon storing rainwater. However, the collapse occurred over a long period of time, indicating that climate change wasn’t the only contributor towards the collapse. Regions of the lowlands had different topography, therefore they had access to different amounts of water, so areas may have looked more attractive to live in than others – leading to depopulation in certain areas and explaining why the collapse occurred overtime. Anthropogenic factors had an impact on the collapse as well, as the Maya used natural resources such as wood and land to provide for their large population. In the long term, deforestation could have caused soil erosion and thus crop failure. All of these anthropogenic factors could have been caused by a rapidly growing population from 150AD to 900AD. It’s difficult to have a clear answer to such a complex question, especially when there are so many factors in play. Overall, this essay concludes that climate change did cause the collapse of the Ancient Maya civilisation, but with a mix of anthropogenic factors too over a long period of time.
Word count: 2019
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