Water management and the demise of the Maya civilization

VIENNA UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY—Something really drastic must have happened to the Ancient Maya at the end of the Classic Period in the 9th century. Within a short period of time, this advanced civilization in Central America went from flourishing to collapsing—the population dwindling rapidly and monumental stone structures, like the ones built at Yucatán, were no longer being constructed. The reason for this demise remains the subject of debate even today. Model calculations by TU Wien may have found the explanation: the irrigation technology that served the Mayans well during periods of drought may have actually made their society more vulnerable to major catastrophes.

The lessons learned may also help us to draw important conclusions for our own future. We need to be careful with our natural resources—if technical measures simply deal with the shortage of resources on a superficial level and we do not adjust our own behavior, society is left vulnerable. Read more.

In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya

The ancient city of Holmul isn’t much to look at. To the casual observer it’s just a series of steep, forested hills in the middle of the jungle in northern Guatemala, near the Mexican border. The jungle here in the Petén Basin is thick and warm but drier than you might expect. And silent, except for the drum of cicadas and the occasional calls of howler monkeys.

Take a closer look, and you may notice that most of these hills are arranged in massive rings, like travelers huddled around a fire on a cold night. An even closer look reveals that parts of the hills are made of cut stone, and some have tunnels carved into their sides. In fact they’re not hills at all but ancient pyramids, left to decay after the collapse of the Maya civilization a millennium ago. 

The site was a thriving settlement during the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-900), a time when writing and culture flourished throughout what is today Central America and southern Mexico. Read more.
The demise of the Maya civilization: Water shortage can destroy cultures: Interplay between society and hydrological effects
Water reservoirs provide relief during short periods of drought. They can, however, make a society even more vulnerable to major catastrophes, if the population keeps growing without changing their habits. New models suggest that this could have caused the demise of the Maya civilization.

I’m not copy/pasting the article because I don’t agree with the researchers, but if you want to click the link and read it that is up to you. Instead, what I want to say is that I don’t believe it is as simple as saying not enough water caused the abandonment (not collapse) of the Lowlands. Based on the press release, these researchers have failed to mention thriving Classic period city-states (Caracol, Chichen Itza, Uxmal), the creation and expansion of Postclassic city-states (Mayapan, Q'umarkaj, Mixco Viejo) the effects of deforestation (need wood for construction, tool making, cooking fires, and making plaster), the effects of changing trade routes (more coastal trade, Lowland cities could not tap into these networks easily), different water management strategies (not everyone used cenotes or built reservoirs) and effects of internal dynamics after the defeat of powerful city-states like Calakmul (the abandonment started around the same time), or a shift in sociopolitical power from a god-king to just a king that is sometimes supplemented with a council of lords.

I try to share informative discoveries and assessments of past Native peoples with you all. Sometimes I don’t know if it is accurate because I’m not an expert in everything, though I try to make a fair assessment. In this case, however, I do have a background in Maya archaeology and I can comment and point out possible inaccuracies. Without seeing more than a press release I cannot say anything more. Perhaps in the paper the researchers address all these issues, but I doubt they did or addressed them adequately. Whenever I read something on the abandonment, people tend to focus on just one cause rather than multiple. No model is going to be perfect and every model will need reassessment when new data emerges. That’s part of the science of archaeology. I’m just annoyed that pop-sci outlets are going to latch onto this to further push the idea that the Maya were some kind of ancient hippy jungle people who lived as one with nature and mysteriously disappeared into the jungle leaving us to wonder what happened, an idea that keeps popping up like a bad villain in a TV show.

Parallels can be drawn to the area I now study in West Mexico. Drought certainly played a role in the abandonment of Teuchitlan culture sites. Records in lake sediments in Nayarit as well as archaeology surveys and geomorphology work in the Magdalena Lake Basin have confirmed this drought. This is the same drought that would have affected the Bajio and Teotihuacan to the east. But whether or not drought is the key factor is yet to be determined. Instead it may well be the “straw that broke the camel’s back” with other underlying issues bubbling to the surface. Because at the end of the 6th century we don’t just see the abandonment of settlements, we see the abandonment of everything. They stop burying their dead in shaft tombs, they stop building guachimontones, they stop producing the same ceramic styles and forms, they start producing different stone tools, they stop producing hollow and solid ceramic figures which the region is known for, they start building tiered platforms and u-shaped elite residential structures, they even stop living near Classic period settlements and instead opt to live in completely different areas with no previous occupation. They turned their back on 800 years of cultural practices and tradition and I doubt that drought was sole reason.