Extensive Drought May Have Ended the Mayan Empire
by Allison Torres, age 12
The fall of the Mayan empire remains a mystery, but today’s scientists believe they’ve found clues to understand how the empire collapsed. For 3000 years, the Mayans lived in Mesoamerica where they made creative structures and built an advanced community. After reaching their peak in power, the empire collapsed in only 150 years. A variety of explanations have been proposed over the years, including deforestation and overpopulation. But recent studies of muddy sediment at Lake Chichancanab, which was once a part of the Mayan empire, show evidence that drought was the major reason that caused the collapse.
By taking sediment core samples of layers of mud, scientists are able to study past environments. Specifically, in this study at Lake Chichancanab, researchers looked at a soft mineral called gypsum. Scientists know that during drought water evaporates, leaving behind gypsum. They found large amounts of this mineral in the area of the lake which suggested the region experienced extreme dry periods. Researchers believe that yearly rainfall in the Maya lowlands decreased an average of 50 percent from the years 800 to 1000 C.E. At extreme drought levels, rainfall decreased up to 70 percent. This time of drought correlates with the time that the empire was abandoned.
The effects of droughts are still seen today. In the United States, drought has caused economic losses of about nine billion dollars per year. Additionally, studies show that the environment is taking longer to recover or never fully recovers after drought. Some scientists argue that climate change will cause more “mega-droughts” in the future.
However, unlike ancient civilizations, modern societies have technology that can deal with drought and prevent a total collapse of the community. According to Andrew Plantinga, a professor of natural resource economics and policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “We have many ways to mitigate water scarcity that would not have been available to ancient civilizations.” Water can be moved across long distances, and technology has made it possible for water to be extracted from multiple sources, options the Mayans did not have.
Drought is a major environmental problem that has impacted both ancient and modern societies. While humans can adapt to water shortages, drought remains an issue in today’s world and for the future generations. The collapse of the Mayan civilizations shows us the negative effects of climate change.