What Triggered The Collapse of The Ancient Maya? A New Study Reads Like a Warning

Observing 800 years of history, historians have come to the conclusion that Mayapan, the political and cultural center of the Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula in the 13th and 14th centuries CE, may have been destroyed by drought.

According to the experts, the drought would have caused civil war, which would have afterwards resulted in political collapse.

The population would have fled to more compact areas where conditions were safer.

The new study not only sheds light on the past of these prehistoric people but also serves as a cautionary tale about how swiftly climatic changes may put strain on even the oldest and wealthiest civilizations.

In their recently released work, the researchers state that "several data sources suggest that civil war grew dramatically, and generalized linear modeling links strife in the city with dry conditions between 1400 and 1450 CE."

The Maya political and economic institutions persisted up to European contact in the early 16th century CE, according to the authors of the study. "We believe that extended drought exacerbated competing factional conflicts, but subsequent modifications demonstrate region-scale durability," they write.

The researchers already had a wealth of historical data at its disposal, including statistics on population growth, modern diets, and climatic conditions.

An updated examination of human remains for evidence of severe damage was included to these records (pointing to conflict).

There were correlations between increasing rainfall and local population growth as well as between future rainfall drops and escalating violence. Mayapan was probably abandoned between 1400 and 1450 CE due to a protracted drought, according to the archaeologists.

According to the study, the Mayapanese people would have been under stress since the shortage of water would have had an impact on farming methods and commerce routes. People either perished or scattered as food became more scarce and the situation became more perilous.

Many of the corpses found in the final mass grave dug before the city was abandoned, according to the researchers, likely belonged to family members of the Cocoms (the leaders of state), whose brutal end was brought on by rival factions and civil turmoil.

The researchers write that their findings "support the storied institutional collapse of Mayapan between 1441 and 1461 CE, a result of civil conflict driven by political rivalry and ambition, which was embedded in the social memory of Yucatecan peoples whose testimonies entered the written record of the early Colonial Period."

There are numerous aspects to examine and balance when attempting to understand why a historical population behaved in the manner that it did. Human reactions to environmental constraints like drought are undoubtedly complicated, differing by place and by century.

After Mayapan fell, migration to other sections of the Yucatán Peninsula, particularly wealthy coastal cities and politically free villages, enabled the Maya civilization survive; nevertheless, there is no evidence of warfare between these areas prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The researchers claim that this is evidence of a "resilient system of human-environmental adaptations," but adaptations can only go so far. These same areas are now again dealing with a climate catastrophe along with the rest of the planet.

The researchers conclude that historical and archaeological data "are well adapted for assessing past social repercussions of climatic crises across long-term cycles."

"The Maya area has the depth and breadth of archaeological, historical, and climate data necessary for researching relationships between societal transformation and changing climatic conditions."

The research has been published in Nature Communications.