Gallery B

Collapse Of Cultures
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Did Warfare And Weather Destroy The Mayans?

By James Donahue

Archaeologists and historians have long puzzled over the collapse of the great Mayan Civilization that once thrived in Central America, with an empire stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico south into Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

The central Mayan city was Palenque, which operated from about 700 to 1100 CE. Like the many temples, palaces and other stone structures, the buildings at Palenque were decorated with detailed sculptures and inscriptions that offered important historical information about the kings, great battles, gods and daily life.

Descendants of the Mayan culture are believed to still live in the area, but they have no mythology to explain why the great culture that once existed there fell into ruin and were abandoned in about the 1400s.

A paper recently published in Science magazine by Earth researchers Martin Medina-Elizalde and Eelco J. Rohling suggests that climate change that brought prolonged drought may have been a major factor in the destruction of the Mayan Civilization.

By analyzing rock samples and other chemical traces the researchers found evidence that the Earth got colder from 1550 to 1850, glaciers grew larger and there were fewer storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic that brought badly needed rain into the area.

But would drought and other factors from climate change topple the empire, or were other factors involved? Other archaeology finds show that the Maya were also at war during this same period, and were involved in some major wars throughout much of their history.

Indeed, the Maya were a powerful polity, spread out over a large portion of Central America. They used advanced agricultural techniques and literally changed the shape of much of the landscape to make way for farm crops, roads and homes. In a haunting way, their lifestyle mimics what we are doing in America today, but at even more intensity and cost.

Thus we reach the ugly thought that we may be making the same mistakes the Maya made. We today are caught up in major climate change brought on my our own industrial pollution of the air, land and water. We are using advanced agricultural practices that many scientists warn are damaging the soil and threatening the quality and quantity of crops. And we are spending most of our resources on a military industrial complex and involved in almost constant warfare around the world.

Some researchers suggest that the Mayan Empire’s demise may have been the result of a mix of social and environmental factors that were intensified by food shortages caused by drought. They point to warfare, famine and climate change as the combined cause.

What happened to the Mayans should be a lesson to us today. Is anybody listening?