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    Stalagmites Suggest Climate Change Killed the Mayans

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Way back in February I wrote about some then-new research tying the Mayan collapse to climate change. Now, new research published in Science adds a little more insight into the phenomenon.

    The idea that climate change caused the Mayan collapse is nothing new, and although the comments on my last piece suggest it’s a controversial hypothesis, it’s really pretty simple. For about a hundred years, decreased rainfall slowly pushed the Mayans closer and closer to catastrophe. The new research adds an important wrinkle: Prior to the epic drought, the Mayans experienced a particularly wet period that allowed their food production — and thus population — to boom, which made the resulting drought all the more difficult to deal with. The new evidence lends stronger temporal support to the hypothesis, the lack of which has been a criticism of past studies.

    “The rise and fall of Mayan civilization is an example of a sophisticated civilization failing to adapt successfully to climate change,” said James Baldini of Britain’s Durham University, who was part of the international team who conducted the research. “Periods of high rainfall increased the productivity of Maya agricultural systems and led to a population boom and resource overexploitation.”

    The Maya empire spread throughout what’s now Belize, Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemela, and the team tracked 2,000 years worth of weather in the region via a clever method: analyzing stalagmites. Because stalagmites grow from the dripping of mineral-laden water, chemical analyses can help researchers reconstruct precipitation records. The researchers cross-referenced that data with information on periods of war and civil unrest gleaned from the Mayan’s famously-complete records, and found that as rainfall decreased, strife went up.

    That conclusion is supported by other studies showing that drought causes wars. But in this case, it seems like a problem of innovation. The Mayan population boomed during the years of plenty, and when the environment became less hospitable, they weren’t able to develop new ways to support everyone. This conclusion about the Mayan collapse also lends credence to another worrisome study that suggests a coming resource crunch will result in global riots. Let’s hope we can innovate our way out of this one, folks.

    Image by Angel Ortiz

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.