View Full Version : Mayan Civilization Destroyed by Drought


Beard Rinker
Feb 22, 2002, 10:51 AM
I saw a program on TLC last night which presented some pretty compelling evidence that the Mayan civilization was destroyed by drought. Apparently, around 12 centuries ago, the Mayan area suffered the worst drought in several milleniums. This coincided with the fall of the Mayan civilization.

Being an avid civilization player, I related this to civilization terms. The Mayan civilization had a fairly good start. By 800 AD they were the most advanced civilization on their continent and seemed poised to control the entire continent before too long. Then, out of the blue, the climate changes and decimates their civilization, leaving them with small scattered villages throughout the region. When the Spanish arrive the Mayans are easy pickings.

Thank goodness the game isn't so randomly ruthless.

Sodak
Feb 22, 2002, 10:57 AM
The Maya were not easy pickings at all. They were the last amerindian tribe the Spanish were able to conquer. They held out against the invaders until about 1650, and remained relatively autonomous for another 200 years. There was an independent Maya state in the Yucatan for the second half of the 19th century.

What happened in the 9th century was a social and then political collapse among the highland Maya kingdoms. The lowland Maya were not as much affected by this, tho. By the 11th century, there were again major Maya kingdoms (some heavily influenced by foreigners), and their tech knowledge remained ahead of anybody else in the region.

In game terms, I think it might be fun to have such events. Damn frustrating, no doubt - but rebuilding from that would call for true deity level effort!

Beard Rinker
Feb 22, 2002, 11:23 AM
Originally posted by Sodak
What happened in the 9th century was a social and then political collapse among the highland Maya kingdoms.

The drought theory is fairly new and was (maybe still is) not favored by many experts on this subject. As I said in my previous post, the show presented some fairly compelling evidence to support the theory. I am certainly no expert on the subject and couldn't say which theory is correct. It seems plausible that one could precipitate the other though.

FYI - here is the promo from the learning channel's web site.

From The Learning Channel
The Maya Collapse


Journey into the heart of the Belize jungle to uncover clues to the demise of an extraordinarily advanced civilization. Could a devastating drought be the cause of the sudden death of millions? Examine the archaeological evidence.

kittenOFchaos
Feb 22, 2002, 11:25 AM
The ENORMOUS volcanic eruption of the Volcano Illopango (which I did a project in the Second Year of my Geology degree the night before the deadline) also bashed the Mayan Civilisation pretty hard. Indeed it may well have been responsible for causing this drought of which you speak as the amount of dust, SO2 and CO2 and smoke generated by such a vast eruption (it is certainly near the top of the scale of the largest RECENT -e.g not pre-history- volcanic eruptions).

I agree it is a shame that the world is so stable and can be trusted to act a certain way...certainly in SMAC there were some really good random events like plagues and hailstones and meteors hitting Nexus!

Richard III
Feb 22, 2002, 11:37 AM
Actually, my love for the Mayans aside, one of my pet desires for a Civ4 would be a climate engine to slowly shift climate throughout history. The net effect would be slight increases or decreases in happiness effects, and obvious slight changes in ecology and agricultural productivity.

But then, I'm playing for history, not for points.

R.III

Jimcat
Feb 22, 2002, 11:43 AM
It's been years since I read any in-depth history of the Maya, but I do remember the drought theory being mentioned in a book published in the 1940's. So it's not a completely new idea. What I remember reading is that the Maya were stricken by a combination of ecological mismanagement and bad weather. They based most of their agriculture on a single crop -- maize -- and didn't figure out the concepts of crop rotation or letting land lie fallow. So their maize-growing areas became less and less productive, and this combined with the drought led to mass starvation and the collapse of many cities.

kittenOFchaos
Feb 22, 2002, 08:58 PM
Ilopango and the Mayans :D

http://www.academicpress.com/volcano/msie/Contents/Chapt80_05.htm

260 A.D so quite a time before your drought...and with this area active with other volcanoes it seems that Mayans had a pretty torrid time with their environment in general :cry:

History_Buff
Feb 22, 2002, 10:05 PM
Still they did pretty well as far as the Amerindian tribes got. But I think one of the key reasons that the Spaniards took so long to finally conquer them is because they didn't really want extra territory, just extra gold. And money always seems to corrupt people.

allhailIndia
Feb 24, 2002, 06:50 AM
Thank God we are not paying for Civfanatics.com:D :goodjob:

Sodak
Feb 25, 2002, 09:50 AM
Originally posted by Beard Rinker
The drought theory is fairly new and was (maybe still is) not favored by many experts on this subject. ... I am certainly no expert on the subject and couldn't say which theory is correct. It seems plausible that one could precipitate the other though.

Sorry if I wasn't clear in my response. :o I wasn't refuting the drought theory (I think it has good merit), but rather the statement that the Mayan civilization was destroyed. Their kingdoms collapsed, but the civ itself rebounded nicely. They didn't again achieve an overal glory as they had known in the period before the collapse, but some kingdoms flourished, leaving us the wonderous monuments at Chichen Itza, Palenque, and other places. Because the symbology, language, architecture, and cultural remnants remained essentially constant across the time of collapse, it is clear that the collapse was not the death knell of their civ.

Vrylakas
Feb 25, 2002, 10:47 AM
JimCat wrote:

It's been years since I read any in-depth history of the Maya, but I do remember the drought theory being mentioned in a book published in the 1940's. So it's not a completely new idea. What I remember reading is that the Maya were stricken by a combination of ecological mismanagement and bad weather. They based most of their agriculture on a single crop -- maize -- and didn't figure out the concepts of crop rotation or letting land lie fallow. So their maize-growing areas became less and less productive, and this combined with the drought led to mass starvation and the collapse of many cities.

I was shown a video once from a University of Pennsylvania study that found something similar, that the Mayans had essentially mismanaged their local resources to the point where food production just collapsed. They did an archaeological survey of the surrounding farming communities and their farmlands around a major Mayan settlement and concluded that soil erosion, depletion and depreciation exhausted the mineral resources. The result was a gradual but steady decline in the local population. The evidence for these conclusions was readily available but was overlooked because of a bias on the part of Western anthropologists who viewed the indigeonous peoples of the Americas as eco-savvy, "in-tune-with-Mother-Earth" peoples who couldn't possibly have done something like trash their local environment. Turns out they were just normal people after all.

What intrigues me most about the Mayans is the question of why they and the other great Central American civilizations (Aztecs, Incas, Moche, etc.) became so advanced while Indian societies north and south of them largely languished in hunter-gatherer societies. There were some Mound peoples in the central plains of the U.S. and a minor cluster of groups in the Southwest who built sophisticated settlements, and in the Northeast the Owasco and Iroquois managed seasonable stockaded settlements - but still no one ever came close to the civilizational achievements of the Central Americans. Why? What was it about the jungles of Central America that fostered such successful civilizations? Why have nearly all the great early human civilizations developed in the most adverse conditions, usually deserts or jungles? Is it because peoples in the temperate climates have much more bounty and therefore don't need to develop sophisticated social structures to meet needs? Why didn't Mesopotamia start along the Black Sea or the Caspian, instead of the Iraqi desert?

Kublai-Khan
Feb 25, 2002, 12:58 PM
I think that civilization in America developed just in places were the aborigines developed agriculture (of course) and where there was a strong need of a government that controlled the use of water and earth because of the adverse terrain.
Most of the aborigines in South America developed agriculture, but they were just "barbarians with a very primitive agriculture in a way" but just in the andes (not the ideal place for agriculture) complex urban civilization appeared, because of the need to control in a most effective way the few resources they had, specially the land, for example there was private land and land of the state, the aborigine was obligated to work some moths of the years the state land (of the inca) that was used to sustain widows and other people that couldnt sustain themselves if it wasnt because of that.

Sodak
Feb 26, 2002, 11:35 AM
Originally posted by Vrylakas
...Is it because peoples in the temperate climates have much more bounty and therefore don't need to develop sophisticated social structures to meet needs? Why didn't Mesopotamia start along the Black Sea or the Caspian, instead of the Iraqi desert?
Not bounty, but seasonality limits permanent settlement. In temperate clime winter, early societies had to move to hunt. The north and south americans typically settled for summer agriculture, and camped elsewhere in the winter. They did not wander aimlessly, but used the same places in cycles. Summer growing things along the Platte River, winter hunting in the Powder River basin, repeat each year. The indians near the west coast of north america were permanent settlers, climate allowed it.

In contrast, the central americans could grow crops all year - another way to deplete soil quickly. With no need to move, cities are a natural offshoot of cultural development and steady population growth. Also, the caribbean basin was a major source of food crops in the americas. They had the climate for it, and the plants to utilize. Even the "primitive" peoples of lowland northern south america has complex ag techniques - multiple plantings of various species in one plot to ensure a steady source of complete nutrition. European invaders looked upon these messy looking fields and dismissed the farmers as ignorant sods who couldn't even weed their gardens. Little did they know that it was actually a farming technique far superior to those in europe (regarding nutritional value returned on acreage and labor).

Mesopotamians lived in a very rich ag area, despite climate seemingly unfit for it. Perennial flooding enriches the soil and the rivers provide endless irrigation. The crops developed in Iran and Syria were thus made into commodities. Cities rose and fell in mesopotamia. When the river changed course, and irrigation was no longer possible, everybody and his uncle moved to a new place. That's why the area is so rich in archaeological finds. Few cities stood for millenia - only the major centers could survive while the river flowed elsewhere. Minor settlements had to be abandoned. Anyway, the Black Sea was settled very early on, but it didn't flourish like mesopotamia. The Caspian may have just been too far from ag plant sources. Or too deep into the nomadic culture zone for early settlement to be adopted.

Sodak
Feb 26, 2002, 11:40 AM
Originally posted by Vrylakas
The evidence for these conclusions was readily available but was overlooked because of a bias on the part of Western anthropologists who viewed the indigeonous peoples of the Americas as eco-savvy, "in-tune-with-Mother-Earth" peoples who couldn't possibly have done something like trash their local environment. Turns out they were just normal people after all.

... A view developed because most of the semi-nomadic people really were eco-savvy in how they used the land. They indeed forgot that people plunder the land when they build cities and urban civilizations, regardless of their heritage. But yes, the semi-nomadic indians very much did fit the stereotype, and are probably its source.

ComradeDavo
Feb 26, 2002, 12:53 PM
I saw a program on TLC last night which presented some pretty compelling evidence that the Mayan civilization was destroyed by drought. Apparently, around 12 centuries ago, the Mayan area suffered the worst drought in several milleniums. This coincided with the fall of the Mayan civilization.

I saw a programme based on this idea a while back (4 or so months?) and I must say the arguments for drought causing the downfall of the Mayans were pretty convincing.