Did Climate Change Cause the Decline of the Maya?

Scientists have uncovered evidence suggesting climate change may have been the downfall of the Mayan civilization.

mayaThe Comalcalco temple site in Tabasco, Mexico

Not only that, but this climate change was possibly caused by the Mayans themselves.

The downfall of the Mayan civilization has been one of history’s most enduring mysteries. Much like the extinction of the dinosaurs, dozens upon dozens of theories have been suggested. Some have suggested overpopulation, others a violent uprising, still others disastrous hurricanes.

Now Tom Sever, the only archaeologist on NASA’s staff, is suggesting that self induced climate change brought abut the end for the Maya. His theory comes from a program called SERVIR, which uses satellites to monitor the Central American environment.

The program was intended to help improve natural disaster responses, fight wildfires, and help improve agricultural land use. The satellite images, however, also showed the remnants of the Maya’s agricultural works and how they might have caused a climate disaster.

Sever said of the Mayan civilization’s end: “Our recent research shows that another factor may have been climate change.” The researchers believe they found evidence that suggests climate change may have been directly responsible for the end of Mayan power.

The Maya are thought by many to have used slash-and-burn agriculture. This is a perfectly sustainable agricultural method with very small populations, but the Mayan civilization at one point had a population near 60,000.

Slash-and-burn alone would not have resulted in enough agriculture for all those people to be fed. Sever’s satellite images made a groundbreaking discovery. They showed drainage canals and overgrown fields in what is known as bajos.

Bajos are seasonal wetlands that cover about 40% of the area traditionally inhabited by the Maya. The wetlands were drained for use in agriculture, which may have helped change the local climate.

Sever’s data suggested that the combination of draining the bajos and slash-and-burn agriculture helped decrease rainfall and increase temperatures in the area. Drought and increased temperatures could have also helped cause some of the other problems frequently cited as the cause of the end of the Maya, such as war or disease.

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