How stalagmites tell the Mayan story and point to climate change

The Mayan civilization was once a pinnacle of societal progress. Photo: AlphaTangoBravo/Adam Baker/Flickr

The Maya were a very mysterious, mystical culture. Like many ancient societies, archaeologists are still trying to unravel much of their story. But we do know a few things.

The civilization first began to grow in 1,800 BC in and around Guatemala. For the next two millennia, societies grew and prospered, but very slowly. Then around 250 AD, the Mayan culture exploded. 650 years of art, architecture, societal complexity and political development followed. But for some reason, the civilization seemed to peak at 800 AD, and was completely wiped out by 1100.

Artifacts from the Maya point to this decline; the number of manuscripts and documents following 800 AD goes steadily downward, indicating societal fragmentation. There was war and infighting. All of this evidence means we can guess what happened to the Maya, but we still don’t know.

This is where anthropologist Douglas Kennett of Penn State University comes in with a useful tool: Geology. Kennett and his research team looked beneath their feet to find out what happened to the Maya, turning to stalagmites in caves. Stalagmites take centuries to form from groundwater seeping into caves, dripping off the rock, and leaving minerals behind. This creates a very detailed record of how much rain fell, and when it fell.

Kennett and his team examined stalagmites in a cave in Belize, not far from an important Mayan site. The stalagmite’s record matches perfectly with what historians know about the Mayan civilization. Judging by the stalagmites, between 200 and 1100 AD the culture experienced droughts that sometimes lasted for decades at a time. Droughts between 640 and 660, and 820 and 870 coincide with known warfare and political infighting and collapse, which would make sense as people fought each other over fewer resources. Conversely, the time between 450 to 660 is marked by a golden age of prosperity, when the stalagmites indicate the land was getting enough rain.

So why were the Maya experiencing such dramatic weather changes? Because Central America was undergoing climate change. El Niño effects were combined with what’s known as the intertropical convergence zone, where northeast and southeast equatorial winds come together. This, coupled with a large, thriving society that needs a lot of resources to survive, lead to a steady decline.

Understand, dear reader, that this is not the same kind of climate change the Earth is experiencing right now. Drier periods developed over centuries due to environmental phenomena not linked to human activity, unlike the changes we’ve seen take hold over the past several decades in response to pollution, over-fishing, over-developing and the entire host of environmental attacks mankind has carried out over the last 150 years. More importantly, the Mayan civilization had no way to remedy their situation, except to die out.

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