The Fall Of Angkor . . . Overpopulation
By James Donahue
Deep in the jungles of Cambodia are found the ruins of the great empire of Angkor,
a massive city that historians once said fell because it was sacked by Siamese invaders in the early Fifteenth Century.
But a team of archaeologists working on The Greater Angkor Project found evidence
that the old city collapsed for another reason. And it is a discovery that sends a stark lesson from the distant past that
the modern world should pay attention to.
The researchers found that it was ecological failure and a breakdown of the city’s
elaborate system of waterways and travel routes that destroyed Angkor. In other words, the city grew too large for its own
The team is working on a theory that Angkor used its elaborate system of reservoirs
and canals for irrigation, trade and travel, but the canals plugged from silt and pollution as the population grew. There
also may have been other problems that brought flooding and water shortages.
“They created ecological problems for themselves and they either didn’t
see it until it was too late or they couldn’t solve it when they could see it,” said archaeologist Roland Fletcher.
Another team member, Damian Evans, said he compares the canals to today’s
freeways, and the old elephant paths to our modern telephone lines.
Angkor flourished as a Hindu empire with kings ruling over a large area in Southeast
Asia from the Ninth to Fourteenth centuries. Its builders left a legacy of great temples that still stand today as a remnant
of the splendor that once existed there.
The Greater Angkor Project is a unique archaeological study by the University
of Sydney, Australia, the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient and Cambodia’s Apsara Authority.
Instead of looking at buildings, the team is excavating waterways, travel routes,
evidence of food sources and other remnants of the city’s infrastructure. Modern technology, including radar ground
images provided by NASA and ultra light photographs from the air are being used to map things like ancient rice paddies, locations
of the canals, homes and other remnants of the city.
They have discovered that the metropolitan area extended far beyond the ancient
walled city of Angkor Thom. The city covered an estimated 386 square miles and resembled modern cities like Los Angeles, Fletcher
said. An estimated 750.000 people lived there.
The Angkor economy was based on rice and rice paddies located along dozens of
canals. Also a network of reservoirs, canals and bridges was created so people could move freely and ensure enough water to
grow rice, he said.
He said the elaborate water system directed the water from the north into a central
storage area then dispersed water to the south. The city’s ancient engineers also created a manmade river that joined
two natural ones.
The team believes that the city got too large, and that its elaborate infrastructure
eventually collapsed. “The more modifications they made, the more problems they ran into and the harder it became to
implement solutions,” Evans said.
Another interesting discovery; the growing population drove people into the nearby
hills where they cut down trees for fuel and cleared land for agriculture. This resulted in rain runoff that carries sediment
down into the canals. Eventually they became plugged.
And there, in a microcosm, is a picture of what is occurring throughout the entire
The water and sewer systems in our major cities are old, cracking and wearing
down after up to a hundred years of service. Our elaborate system of roads, highways and bridges is crumbling. Governments
are crying for more tax dollars to make billions of dollars in repairs.
An overpopulated world is cutting down its trees to grow more food for more and
more people. Our water, our air and our land is so polluted we cannot sustain our numbers. But unlike the people of ancient
Cambodia, we can’t just move into a new area and start over.
We have no place left to run.