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Possible Role of Climate in the Collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization
Hodell, D.A., Curtis, J.H., and Brenner, M.
Complete Scientific Reference

Lake Chichancanab Isotope Data and Data Description from the WDC Paleoclimatology archive.

Originating in the Yucatan Peninsula, the ancient Maya civilization occupied a vast area of Mesoamerica between the time period of 2600 BC and 1200 AD. Constructing thousands of architectural structures and developing sophisticated concepts surrounding the disciplines of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya civilization rose to a cultural florescence between the years of 600 to 800 AD. Although this prosperity reigned for nearly two centuries, the Maya civilization met with misfortune between the years of 800 and 900 AD.

Click image for larger viewing image. During this time period, known by archaeologists as the Classic Collapse of the Maya civilization, many southern cities were abandoned and most cultural activities ceased. The Maya, never able to regain their cultural or geographical prominence, were assimilated into other Mesoamerican civilizations until the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1530 AD.

The cause of the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization represents one of the great archaeological mysteries of our time, and has been debated by scholars for nearly a century. Some scientists theorize that the paleoclimate of the region was not only different than the present day climate, but the natural climate variability of the past could have included a period of intense drought that occurred in conjunction with the Classic Maya Collapse.

Scientists reconstructed the past climate of the Maya civilization by studying lake sediment cores in the Yucatan Peninsula. In closed basin lakes, the ratio of 18O to 16O in lake water is controlled mainly by the balance between evaporation and precipitation. The 18O to 16O ratio of lake water is recorded by aquatic organisms, such as gastropods and ostracods that precipitate shells of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Scientists can measure the 18O to 16O ratio in fossil shells in sediment cores to reconstruct changes in evaporation/precipitation through time, thus inferring climate change.

The oxygen isotope data measured on ostracods have been converted from radiocarbon years to calendar years and compared to Mayan cultural periods. (Graphed image at right; for larger viewing image, click here or on image.) Superimposed upon the mean changes in the record are distinct peaks that represent arid climate conditions. These peaks occur at 585 AD, 862 AD, 986 AD, 1051 AD and 1391 AD. Error is approximately +/-50 years. The first peak at 585 AD coincides with the early/late Classic boundary. This boundary is associated with the "Maya Hiatus", which lasted between 530 and 630 AD. The Maya Hiatus was marked by a sharp decline in monument carving, abandonment in some areas and social upheaval. This event may have been drought-related. During the next 200 years from 600 to 800 AD, the late Classic Maya flourished and reached their cultural and artistic apex. The next peak in 18O/16O occurs at 862 AD and coincides with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization between 800 and 900 AD. The earliest Postclassic Period was also relatively dry between 986 and 1051 AD. At about 1000 AD, mean oxygen isotope values decrease indicating a return to more humid conditions. Although a Postclassic resurgence occurred in the northern Yucatan, city-states in the southern lowlands remained sparsely occupied.

These findings support a rather strong correlation between times of drought and major cultural discontinuities in Classic Maya civilization.

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