Role Of Climate In The Classic Maya Collapse History Essay

In this paper, the impacts of clime alteration on the Maya will be examined. It is likely that a figure of factors combined to bring forth the ‘collapse ‘ for which the civilization is good known. With this in head, the extent to which climate itself played a function will be peculiarly looked into.

Specifying the ‘Collapse ‘

Before the function of clime can be looked into, it foremost needs to be established what the ‘Maya prostration ‘ really was. Popular media has frequently portrayed the prostration as something that happened at the same time across the Mayan part, ensuing in the disconnected and complete devastation of the full Mayan civilization. However this was non the instance. The ‘collapse ‘ chiefly refers to the drastic diminution of the metropoliss of the southern Maya Lowlands. Many of these metropoliss had been highly powerful in the Authoritative period ( AD 250-900 ) , the so called ‘pinnacle ‘ of Mayan civilization, and had dominated the full Maya part ( Sharer and Traxler 2006: 287 ) . It is the autumn of these metropolis provinces that defines the Terminal Classic ( AD 790-900 ) , but this period besides saw many sites, peculiarly in the North and E, continue to boom and in some instances even grow, back uping big populations into the Postclassic ( AD 900- c.1542 ) long after the ‘collapse ‘ . Sharer and Traxler hence define the prostration as ‘a procedure of transmutation that saw the terminal of Authoritative provinces and the rise of new provinces that dominated the Postclassic period ‘ ( 2006: 503 ) .

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Identifying the Collapse

It has been seen that the prostration of Classic Maya sites was focussed within the southern Maya Lowlands, but what were the alterations in the archeological record that signal prostration in this part? A major factor proposing prostration was the lessening in the figure of carven rock stelae and communion tables dedicated over the class of the ninth century, with the last known dated stela holding been erected at Tonina in AD 909. The surcease of raising memorials varied between sites, with inscribed stelae discontinuing at Dos Pilas every bit early as AD 760 and Tikal at AD 889, proposing that the prostration was non a sudden, coincident event, but was an on-going procedure that affected different metropoliss at different times ; although finally the result was the same ( Chase and Chase 2006: 169 ) .

Drastic depopulation of the part is besides identifiable. This can be seen in a diminution of domestic activity in castles and common houses likewise. The metropoliss of Tikal, Calakmul, Copan and Palenque, among others, had reached peak population in the Late Classic and so their subsequent diminution is peculiarly noticeable ( Sharer and Traxler 2006: 500 ) . There have been assorted estimations as to the maximal population of the southern and cardinal Lowlands during the Authoritative period, runing from 3 to 14 million people, but it is apparently agreed that this had dropped to around merely 1 million by the start of the Postclassic. This suggests a depopulation rate in the scope of 53-90 % , a degree unprecedented prior to European reaching in the New World ( Gill 2000: 351 ) . So although limited to the Maya Lowlands, the prostration was a important event, go forthing one time powerful metropoliss deserted within the infinite of 150 old ages.

What made the Mayan civilization different from others that suffered a drastic prostration was that it was non a individual, incorporate society, but was alternatively a aggregation of single metropolis provinces and their backwoodss, each controlled by a male monarch. This would look to propose that at that place must hold been external force per unit areas that, at the really least, triggered and compounded bing jobs within these metropolis provinces, instead than internal jobs that somehow all resulted in prostration. So what had caused these one time great metropoliss to be abandoned?

Causes of the Collapse

Many different statements have been put frontward to explicate the Maya prostration. In the yesteryear a individual cause had been sought, and natural catastrophes such as temblors or hurricanes were considered. It is now by and large agreed nevertheless, that there was likely no individual cause, but an interplay of factors ( McNeil et al. 2010: 1017 ) . For the intent of this paper nevertheless I shall concentrate on drouth and warfare, which are two of the most normally debated theories.


Fluctuation in rainfall was common to the Maya country and there was case in point for drouth, although grounds suggests that the Classic drouths lasted longer and were more intense than any antecedently experienced by the Maya ( Gill et al. 2007 ) . Lake sediment nucleuss from Lake Chichancanab in the Eastern Yucatan Peninsula show that there was a period of drouth enduring around 150-200 old ages, with three peak stages of terrible drouth within this. This is supported by grounds from marine deposits of the Cariaco Basin off the seashore of Venezuela, which show that, in this peculiar part, the drouth lasted from AD 760-930. Four periods of intense drouth are identifiable from these samples, centering on the old ages AD760, 810, 860 and 910 ( Gill et al. 2007 ) . The correlativity between the periods of terrible drouth and the prostration of Classic Maya civilization in the Lowlands, certainly suggests it had a critical impact on those civil orders, such as Tikal, Calakmul, Naranjo and Palenque, that were non good served by rivers.

Lucero suggests that the Classic Maya elite based their power on the control of H2O. Many of the regional Centres of the Maya Lowlands did non hold entree to natural H2O beginnings and relied on unreal reservoirs which were under the control of the swayers. As a consequence they were dependent on seasonal rainfall for H2O, and Maya royalty would hold besides used their particular connexions to the Gods, specifically Chac the rain God, to vouch adequate H2O through rites and ceremonials. It was upon this footing that Maya swayers exacted testimonial and labor from their topics ( Lucero 2002 ) . Decreasing rainfall and long term drouth would hold undermined the foundation on which the Mayan elite drew their power, ensuing in political prostration. The decreasing power of the elite can be seen archaeologically through a decrease in the industry and distribution of prestigiousness and ritual goods at many Centres during the Terminal Classic ( Sharer and Traxler 2006: 499-500 ) . The production of polychromatic clayware and ornately carven points of jade, wood, bone and shell, was controlled by the elite and used to reenforce position ( Demarest 2004: 213 ) . The increasing absence of such points in the archeological record therefore suggests rulers no longer had the same degree of support from their topics. Their power was declining, as besides reflected in fewer dynastic stelae, used to legalize power, and the terminal of monumental building undertakings such as ball tribunals, temples and causeways. The diminution of the elite and, as a consequence, centralised political administration was a major characteristic of the Mayan prostration. It is Lucero ‘s statement that drouth was the chief ground behind this. It was merely able to bring down such detrimental alteration because H2O control was built-in to the establishment of Kingship within Mayan society. Drought would hold besides had the obvious effects of a deficiency of imbibing H2O and terrible lessening in agricultural production.


Conversely it has besides been suggested that instead than drouth, it was endemic warfare and competition amongst the assorted metropolis provinces that led to the weaker civil orders being overpowered, doing the dislocation of dynastic power in these defeated civil orders. The metropoliss of the Petexbatun part of present twenty-four hours Guatemala, in peculiar, are argued to hold collapsed while trapped in a province of besieging and munition warfare ( Demarest et al. 1997 ) . This changeless province of war is believed to hold destabilised the political and economic constructions, ensuing in political degeneration and eventual failure in the early ninth century.

Interestingly the Petexbatun part had good river entree, doing it improbable that drouth was a major factor in the prostration of this country ( Sharer and Traxler 2006: 515-17 ) . It is on this footing that Demarest disputes an ecological theoretical account, indicating out that political decomposition had already begun in the Petexbatun by the clip drouth occurred, the last lettering at the earliest known metropolis to fall, Dos Pilas, dated to AD760 ( Demarest cited in McKillop 2004: 99 ) . Zooarchaeological grounds from this part besides suggests there was no danger of dearth, or nutritionary emphasis through protein lack, in the Classic or Terminal Classic ( Emery cited in Demarest 2006: 105 ) . The force prevalent in this part was apparently independent of an environmental drift.

Common Ground?

There is a convincing sum of grounds in support of each of both drouth and warfare, proposing that they both likely played some function. The nature of Maya society nevertheless, being a aggregation of metropolis provinces, means that grounds of warfare in one part, for case, does non needfully intend that it can be inferred elsewhere. As mentioned, it was in the metropoliss of the Petexbatun where grounds shows endemic force caused the forsaking of the part. It has frequently been the error to connote that this so must certainly hold been the cause for prostration across the full Maya lowlands, or at least present in a wider country, but the grounds does non back up this. The same goes for drouth. Although this may hold been noticeable over much of the Maya lowlands, the affects were certainly most closely felt by those metropoliss without entree to natural H2O beginnings and dependant on rainfall for agribusiness.

Alternatively the grounds appears to propose that different parts probably had a different trigger cause or combination of causes ( Sharer and Traxler 2006: 514 ) . It seems difficult to believe that such ruinous events could hold occurred within a similar timeframe, yet independently of each other, but have the same consequence. This does propose nevertheless that Mayan civilization had reached a point where it was highly vulnerable to the slightest fluctuation, with location playing a big portion in make up one’s minding the factor that would tip a peculiar metropolis over the border, towards prostration.

Manmade or Natural Occurrence?

Drought appears to hold played a comparatively big, although joint, function in the prostration of the Classic Mayan civilization. But was this environmental alteration anthropogenic or a natural happening? The reply to this relates closely to the statement over the degree of deforestation carried out by the Maya.

It has long been argued by many of those back uping the theory that drouth was at least in portion responsible for the Maya prostration, that the Maya themselves were to fault for the environmental debasement, due to deforestation. Shaw believes that the changing destiny of the different metropolis provinces during the Terminal Classic was a consequence of the degree of deforestation in their peculiar part. She argues that, as deforestation raises temperatures and decreases evapotranspiration at a local or regional degree merely, the changing extent of tree remotion explains the abnormality that the North and East of the Yucatan Peninsula continued to back up a booming population, while the heartland collapsed under terrible drouth ( Shaw 2003 ) . Studies into twentieth century drouths in the United States and Mexico, nevertheless, show that over big countries they are barely of all time unvarying, and so it is really normal for certain countries to be affected more, or less at different times ( Gill et al. 2007: 287 ) . This provides another account for the asymmetrical effects of drouth in the Maya country, challenging the thought that deforestation was responsible for the abnormalities.

The Maya would hold cleared subdivisions of wood to do room for agriculture and agribusiness. Wood was besides used as domestic fuel, and was needed for the high temperature fires used to do lime howitzer from limestone, a cardinal constituent in Maya building ( Demarest 2004: 145 ) . That the Maya made usage of their forest environment is hence known, but it is Shaw ‘s statement that they exploited it through witting overexploitation ( Shaw 2003 ) . Diamond is another advocator of the deforestation theoretical account as a cause of prostration, reasoning that deforestation would hold made the dirt much less fertile at a clip when more agricultural land was needed, due to population force per unit area. He besides agrees with Shaw that another of the effects would hold been manmade drouth, and he uses the illustration of Copan, in present twenty-four hours Honduras, in peculiar ( Diamond 2005: 168-70 ) .

That deforestation was widespread, and a human induced cause of drouth, is a plausible theory, and in Copan, is supported by a nucleus sample from Petapilla Swamp, a peat bog 4.5km North of the metropolis itself ( Rue 1987 ) . Pollen retrieved from the nucleus showed a much lower representation of tropical and deciduous wood trees than antecedently known, and less fluctuation in the palynoflora. The nucleuss showed no suggestion of important climatic alteration from the palynological grounds, and led Rue to reason that the vegetal alterations were human induced through deforestation, with increased activity in the Late Classic ( Rue 1987 ) .

New grounds has late been put frontward nevertheless, that disputes deforestation as the cause of environmental debasement. This new research peculiarly focuses on the civil order of Copan where, as touched on above, it had antecedently been asserted that by AD800, non a individual tree remained from the deciduous, or ache forest on the incline above the metropolis ( Abrams and Rue 1988, Diamond 2005: 169 ) . McNeill et Al. argue that Rue ‘s Petapilla Swamp nucleus, upon which much of the deforestation theory has been based, merely dates back to AD1010 with its oldest deposit, 100 old ages after Copan ‘s prostration ( 2010 ) . Therefore it could non perchance have bearing on the Authoritative period population and their affect on the environment. The new informations comes from another nucleus from the same swamp, of which the earliest deposits this clip day of the month to 900-790 cal BC, supplying informations over a much longer scope. It provided an interesting pollen profile, with the most marked deforestation apparent at the earliest phase of 900-790BC, with another ulterior rush in the fifth century AD. Very much in contrast to the earlier nucleus, it besides shows an addition in arborical pollen in the Late Classic, peculiarly that of pine. This information allowed McNeill et al. to surmise that:

At the stopping point of the metropolis ‘s Authoritative period, the hills above Copan were more dumbly forested than when the Maya foremost built their civil order Centre.

( 2010: 1021 )

This therefore suggests that instead than destructing their environment, the Maya were really pull offing and cultivating it.

Even though Copan was situated on a river, it received much less rainfall than other river Centres at around 130 centimeters a twelvemonth ; so was likely at the clemency of altering rainfall forms and drouth. But if drought in this part was non caused by deforestation as the latest grounds suggests, so climate alteration was likely behind it. Palaeoclimatic records from North America, Europe and the Arctic indicate that the 9th and 10th centuries AD were every bit cold as during the Little Ice Age. Tree rings from the White Mountains of California show a steep diminution in temperatures from AD790-950 and glacial progresss in Alaska have been dated to AD700-900. In Sweden besides, a figure of glacial progresss are known from this period, dated to AD800-910 ( Gill 2000: 287-88, 385 ) . Severe cold in the Northern Hemisphere can bespeak a south-westward supplanting of the North Atlantic High and a southbound displacement of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone ( ITCZ ) which would hold caused summer rains to neglect in the Maya Lowlands. The failure of the ITCZ to travel north in the summer at this clip, is evidenced by a bead in sea surface salt in a marine deposit nucleus from the north-eastern Caribbean, co-occuring with the period of prostration ( AD 760-930 ) ( Gill et al. 2007 ) . As a consequence, all this grounds points to the climatic conditions as holding been contributing of drouth at the clip of the Maya prostration.

Evitable Climate Change?

It seems evident that clime alteration was responsible for the drouth that affected much of the Maya Lowlands. In some topographic points this may hold been exacerbated by deforestation, but on the whole it seems more likely that it was non anthropogenetic. As discussed antecedently, drouth was one of the chief factors to act upon and possibly even trigger the Maya prostration in some parts. If the drouth was non induced by human action or inactivity, is it possible to larn from the errors of the Maya as Diamond asserts in his book? Diamond bases much, if non all, of his statement on the belief that the Maya had a pick, but their refusal to alter led to their ruin. He more or less suggests that the Maya of Copan, which he uses as an illustration, stood back and watched as the last tree fell. But his statement is based on blemished grounds. This is easy to state with hindsight, in the visible radiation of recent publications, but he besides ignored bing grounds, apparently because it did non back up his place. He remarks:

… Maya male monarchs sought to surpass each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster- reminiscent in bend of the excessive conspicuous ingestion by modern American CEOs.

( Diamond 2005: 177 )

As antecedently mentioned, lime plaster required utmost heat to make and for this ground much wood was required in its production. If deforestation was doing jobs for their society, which is now believed to be false in any instance, so to go on to make huge measures of plaster for nil but aesthetic grounds would hold been nescient and stupid. This is apparently what Diamond is proposing, despite research published in 1996 that showed that sculptures dating to the Late Classic at Copan used much thinner beds of plaster than those of an earlier day of the month. Implying the Maya were taking steps to forestall unneeded tree loss ( Fash and Fash 1996 ) . Diamond focuses on the deductions for our present society, which is a good ground for analyzing past prostration, but he seems to oversimplify the jobs of the Maya. Under the heading ‘The Maya Message ‘ he identifies the assorted strands that he believes led to the prostration, but in a manner that makes it seem like they are a checklist to avoid if we do non desire our present society to neglect. He does non give the Maya any recognition for holding attempted to alter their society in any manner. But he would probably non hold wished to make so ; admiting that the Maya understood the unstable ecological state of affairs they found themselves in and made efforts to counter this, but still failed, does non portend good for our current society, where short term benefit, at apparently any cost, is most frequently preferred over long term solutions.


To come to the decision that the Maya did non determine their ain ruin, in every bit much they did non make drouth through deforestation, seemingly leaves the about every bit unwelcoming alternate that boundary lines on environmental determinism. This statement implies that the Lowlands were non contributing to complex and advanced civilization ; the Mayan metropoliss were destined to prostration, it was an inevitable event that could merely be put off non get the better of. I feel there is, nevertheless, a in-between land between the two. I would hold that the drouth was probably non the consequence of the Maya being irresponsible and overdriving their natural resources. On the contrary it seems more likely that the Maya, at least at Copan, had become good adapted to their environment and were utilizing it sustainably. They were at their peak blossoming in the Authoritative period, when both environmental and climatic conditions were comparatively changeless. As a consequence of this stableness though, they were progressively going portion of a rigidness trap, get the hanging their environment of comparatively low degree, but predictable rainfall by turning water-efficient corn, and using reservoirs in order to construct metropoliss on fertile land far from a lasting H2O beginning. They had made themselves extremely vulnerable to drought and in the terminal classic were faced with the worst drouths the part had seen for 7000 old ages.

It was non the transporting capacity of the part nevertheless, but the nature of Mayan society that reduced their ability to alter, as it must besides be remembered that warfare was as of import a cause of the prostration as drouth in some parts. Although the Maya showed some adaptability at Copan in keeping the forest, factors other than land usage were much harder to alter. Another society without a opinion system based on the control of H2O for illustration, would possibly hold fared better in the same fortunes, as drouth would probably non hold brought down their political system as easy. But this method of control was built-in to Mayan society, leting for such things as monumental building and the exacting of testimonial. The Maya manner of life had evolved to run into their fortunes and their environment, but in the terminal they had become fixed in these ways and were unable to modify their society plenty when their state of affairs changed. Even if the elite had foreseen drouth and wished to alter the footing of their power, it is improbable they could hold even done so without prostration staying the terminal consequence ; it was such a cardinal constituent of their society.

It can hence be seen that the Maya prostration was an highly complex event that was the consequence of multiple factors, of which warfare and drouth were dominant. In an effort to concentrate more on the function of clime, I have neglected some of the other factors such as weakening economic system through loss of trade and overpopulation among others, but have attempted to stress the multi faceted nature of the prostration in the hope of avoiding simplism.

Climate alteration and the ensuing drought played a big, albeit joint function in the prostration of the Lowland Classic Maya. A long period of comparative stableness had made the Maya civilization fragile and inflexible, so that when faced by alterations to this stability, a unstable balance between the assorted elements of their society was revealed ; finally they proved unsuccessful in keeping this in a clip of emphasis.



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