WASHINGTON — A long catastrophic drought led to the collapse of Maya culture, a new study said Thursday, confirming a controversial hypothesis linking its demise to climate change.
The study, published in Friday’s issue of the journal “Science,” involved an international team of researchers.
“The rise and fall of Mayan civilization is an example of a sophisticated civilization failing to adapt successfully to climate change,” said James Baldini of Britain’s Durham University.
“Periods of high rainfall increased the productivity of Maya agricultural systems and led to a population boom and resource overexploitation.”
The progressively drier climate that followed led to the depletion of resources, which in turn sparked political destabilization and war, he noted in a statement.
Then, “after years of hardship, a nearly century-long drought from 1020 sealed the fate of the Classic Maya,” Baldini added.
The researchers came to their conclusion after reconstructing a record of weather in the Maya region — which includes parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras — over the past two thousand years.
They did so by using chemical and mineral analyses of stalagmite layers found in Belize’s Yok Balum cave situated about a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the Classic Period Maya site of Uxbenka and near other major Maya centers that were impacted by the same climate conditions.
Stalagmites are formed in caves by the continuous dripping of calcareous water, which allows for the measurement of precipitation over time.
Considering the Maya kept a meticulous record of political events by inscribing them on stone monuments, the authors of the study were able to “chart how increases in war and unrest were associated with periods of drought,” according to the statement.
The statement also said the role of climate change in the fall of the Maya civilization had previously been suggested but considered controversial “due to dating uncertainties in previous climate records.”