Why Did the Mayans Disappear?
February 1, 2013Owensville High School
Why Did the Mayans Disappear?
Have you ever wondered what really happened to the infamous Mayan civilization—the very same civilization whose long count calendar ended on December 21, 2012? The textbooks from past history classes claim that the society simply disappeared, and that no one actually knows definitely what caused their demise. Still, when you really think about it, the previously known facts simply do not add up. Why would a prosperous culture that had seemingly advanced knowledge of time and space—as well as numerous, massive monuments—suddenly just vanish? There is much speculation on what happened to the Mayans, but now a theory has arisen that has started to become a generally accepted rationalization on the fall of the time keepers—drought.
The ancient Mayan civilization once stretched across an area “about the size ofTexas,” and it had cities and fields occupied in what is now southernMexicoand northern Central America (including the countries ofGuatemala,Belize,El Salvador, andHonduras). The height of the Mayan empire (the Classic Period) stretched from A.D. 250 to A.D. 900. In addition, it is argued that the Mayans were the most advanced civilization in theAmericas, reaching numerous breakthroughs in astronomy that “helped them very accurately predict where the moon and other planets would be in the sky centuries before the future;” they also “left behind many books and stone inscriptions regarding the history of their divine kings and queens.” Then, for reasons unknown, the ancient Mayan Civilization “disintegrated more than a millennium ago,” and the number of people “declined catastrophically to a fraction of the empire’s former size; moreover, the ruins of its great cities are now largely overgrown by jungle.”
Scientists have now attributed the “slow decline of the ancient Maya, which took about two centuries, to climate change, and especially to drought.” However, no sound estimates had been made about the severity of this drought, but “some have suggested extreme scenarios.” In order to track the amount of rainfall the ancient Maya saw before the “demise of their civilization,” researchers collected samples from three nearby lakes and a stalagmite (these substances helped develop a model of the “region’s balance between evaporation and rainfall”).
The results hold that “rainfall in the region decreased episodically for periods as long as a decade at a time.” If the results are accurate, there were “modest rainfall reductions between times when the Classic Maya civilization flourished and its collapse between 800 and 950 A.D.” Moreover, the reductions in rainfall amounted to only 25-40 percent in annual rainfall, but the lack of rain was great enough for “evaporation to become dominant over rainfall,” which rapidly reduced the “open water” availability. Furthermore, the data suggests that the “main cause” of the drought “was a decrease in summer storm activity.”
The timing of these dry spells “might help explain why modest reductions in rainfall still may have helped cause the demise of a well established civilization” due to the fact that summer was the main season for “cultivation and replenishment of Maya freshwater storage systems and there are no rivers in the Yucatan lowlands.” It appears as if the ancient Maya had become “reliant on continuous rainfall supplies, and had stretched the capacity of their farmlands to a fine limit based on normal levels of rain;” because of this, even subtle climate change was enough to “create serious problems.” Furthermore, “societal disruptions and abandonment of cities are likely consequences of critical water shortages, especially because there seems to have been a rapid repetition of multiyear droughts.”
So, it is very likely that the Mayans—the masters of time and the cosmos—met their end by drought. Despite their advancements as an ancient culture, they were still at the mercy of Mother Nature for their survival—and they fell victim to it. Their infamous long count calendar presumably predicted the end of humanity on December 21, 2012, yet this civilization collapsed a millennium beforehand by a weather condition that was nothing as devastating as the types of cataclysmic disasters speculatively possible for the end of the world. Whether this fact makes the Mayans less credible is for the reader to decide. However, one cannot denounce the fact that the Mayan empire was a great and prosperous one, and like all great and prosperous civilizations throughout history, they eventually met their demise. Perhaps we will take the opportunity and learn from them and manage to take a different path when it comes to the opulence of modern society. Still, perhaps we will follow in their footsteps . . .