Ancient Mayans, Victims of Climate Change?

In keeping with my resolution to read, watch, and listen to any and everything pertaining to 2012 and the end of the world, it was with little to no effort that I came across an article that linked climate change to the end of the vast Mayan empire…and so, naturally, I was obligated to read it.  According to new research presented, a series of small, yet persistent, droughts caught the culture unawares and eventually led to their demise.

At the height of their splendor, the Mayans reigned throughout much of Mesoamerica with a range that spread from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and down into what is now Honduras. And despite their no longer being present, what the Mayans established still continues to exist today even today.  Great cities and structures are sprinkled throughout many parts of Central America, proving that what the Mayans built was meant to last.  As a culture, they excelled in astronomy, science, and mathematics—being so far advanced that much of their thinking is still the basis for modern rational.

So how could it be that at the pinnacle of their civilization, the Mayans simply stumbled? How could it happen that the people whom many believe to have been able to see thousands of years into the future had overlooked their own ending?

The idea that climate change wiped out the Mayans is not exactly new; in 2001, scientists removed sediments from a lake on the Yucatan peninsula and found that dry and wet periods on the land were represented by differing layers, much like how rings in a tree can illustrate the tree’s age.  Additionally, this engrained evidence aligned with variations in cultural upheaval (clashes between groups, social unrest, etc.).  Now, new evidence shows that between the years 810 and 910 A.D., when the Mayans ruled, three larger droughts occurred that lasted just less than 10 years apiece.

It was at this point that I was reminded of a certain Mel Gibson film, Apocalypto, a movie clearly drenched in historical accuracy, I am sure.  There was one scene in particular that depicted a show of sacrifice where natives awaited the finer fate of the divine by spilling the blood of the living as equal payment.  As gruesome of a scene as it was, it clearly illustrated a civilization in the midst of panic.  But back to the point: Martin Medina-Elizalde, a researcher at the Yucatan Center for Scientific Research in Mexico, points out the devastating nature of persistent droughts by explaining that “theses droughts may not have been strong enough to cause by themselves the collapse of the civilization, but they were likely strong enough and persistent enough…to cause major sociopolitical disruptions that ultimately led to the final outcome.”

The signs were all there—failing crops, disappearing water sources, cloudless skies—and yet the Mayans had been farsighted and could not predict what all of this would mean for them.  Three hundred years after the Mayans were no more, California’s Chumash endured their own fair share of droughts and excessive dry times.  As the water became more and more scarce, the Chumash recognized the change and converted from their hunter-gatherer ways to become established traders. 

Where the Mayans were caught off guard, we know and can feel the menace that is climate change breathing down our necks—and like the Chumash, we are capable of change.  Let this be a warning that we need to adapt and shift to a lifestyle that is congruent with the world that is growing increasingly uncomfortable underneath our feet.

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