The Destruction of the Mayan Empire: Conquistadors or Climate Change?

The Mayan people were a powerful ancient civilization that made many advances in agriculture and economics, but no one knows how they truly met their demise. According to many people, they were wiped out in the 16th century by the Spanish Conquistadors, but there was a series of events leading up to their end that helped the Conquistadors along. According to an article in the National Geographic, the Mayans could have destroyed themselves through climate change. The article says that scientists can use stalagmites to measure the climate and weather in different periods of time:

Formed by water and minerals dripping from above, stalagmites grow quicker in rainier years, giving scientists a reliable record of historical precipitation trends. One sample used in the new study, for example, documents fluctuations as far back as 2,000 years ago.

These studies showed that from decades 440-660 A.D the Mayan cities flourished due to an unusual amount of rainfall that made their agriculture and farms flourish. The Mayan Empire was built off of this excess in rainfall, and so, once this period of lots of rain ended at about 660 A.D, the Mayans began to fall to pieces. Their agriculture declined, and when that happened, conflict arose between the people. The Mayans believed that their rulers and kings had the ability to commune with the Gods, and so when their prayers for rain did not change anything, tensions rose high. But wait, things got even worse. During 1020-1100 A.D, the Mayan Empire suffered the worst drought in its history. Crops failed, famine spread, and many people died of starvation. Once the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, Mayan population had decreased by 90% and many cities and villages had been abandoned.

This may seem like just an unfortunate set of circumstances for the Mayans, but the significant warming could have been caused by them, and not just a natural occurrence. According to the National Geographic article, the Mayans farming may have caused this drastic climate change:

“There were tens of millions of people in the area, and they were building cities and farms at the expense of the forest,” climate scientist Benjamin I. Cook said.

“Widespread deforestation reduced the flow of moisture from the ground to the atmosphere, interrupting the natural rain cycle and in turn reducing precipitation.”

This is not just an interesting story, but is a cautionary tale to the people of our era. As we advance in agriculture and technology, we continue to destroy forests just as the Mayans did a long time ago. Even though our lives do not depend solely on agriculture, it is still a big factor into how we live, and climate change like in the Mayan Empire could change our lives. Another thing to think about is how the change in time period makes the impacts of deforestation different. So far we have only thought about how humans’ releasing co2 causes global warming, but deforestation and land use is another factor, and we also have to think about how much more or less the deforestation of rainforests and other forests warms the globe compared to our co2 emissions, so before we can go further in the reversing of global warming, we must learn more about this new factor in climate change.

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2 responses to “The Destruction of the Mayan Empire: Conquistadors or Climate Change?”

  1. laurenm0017 says :

    Hi John. I find it interesting how you chose to talk about climate change in the past. The Mayans though great fell hard when it came to the environment. By failing to realize the balance of nature, the Mayans took from the earth and never gave back. My question is: how did precipitation increase at all within the period of time most of the deforestation occurred?

    • johns0117 says :

      I think that the reason that precipitation kept increasing is that at the time when there were many agricultural advances, there were still a lot of forests in their area, but when they kept cutting the trees down, it became hotter and hotter.

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