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Deforestation, drought led to the downfall of the Mayan empire

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 23rd, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The ancient Mayan civilization in southern Mexico and Central America flourished as one of the most advanced societies on earth at that time. The Maya civilization lasted for a highly productive six centuries - and then by 900 AD was extinct, its temples and pyramids still dotting South American jungles. Modern scientists now think that drought; coupled with the deforestation of the surrounding forests were the reason behind the civilization's rapid decline.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Two new studies have concluded that the Mayans themselves contributed to the downfall of their empire.

Along with the drought, the Mayans exacerbated the problem by cutting down the jungle canopy to make way for cities and crops. Researchers used climate-model simulations to see how much deforestation aggravated the drought.

"We're not saying deforestation explains the entire drought, but it does explain a substantial portion of the overall drying that is thought to have occurred," the study's lead author Benjamin Cook says. A climate modeler at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Cook relayed the most recent findings in a statement.

Cook and his colleagues using the simulations examined how much the switch from forest to crops, such as corn, would alter the surrounding climate. As detailed online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, when the Mayan deforestation was at its maximum, the ecological switch could account for up to 60 percent of the drying.

Scientists note that the switch from trees to corn reduces the amount of water transferred from the soil to the atmosphere, which reduces rainfall.

Other recent research, that takes a far more holistic view, is that the "ninth-century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatán peninsular region were the result of complex human-environment interactions." This team, led by B.L. Turner, a social scientist at Arizona State University published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The latter team concurs that with the clearing of the forest, the Mayans may have aggravated a natural drought, which spiked about the time the empire came to an end and population declined dramatically.

Turner and colleagues write that this is just one contributing factor to their demise, the group pointed out that the reconfiguration of the landscape may also have led to soil degradation. Other archaeological evidence points to a landscape under stress. The wood of the sapodilla tree, favored in construction, was no longer used at the Tikal and Calakmul sites beginning in A.D. 741. Larger mammals, such as white-tailed deer, appear to have declined at the end of empire.

In addition, social and economic dynamics also contributed. Trade routes shifted from land transit across the Yucatán Peninsula to sea-born ships, which may have weakened the city states, which were by then dealing with environmental changes.

Faced with mounting challenges, the ruling elites, a very small portion of the population, were no longer capable of delivering what was expected of them, and conflict increased.

"The old political and economic structure dominated by semi-divine rulers decayed," the team writes. "Peasants, artisan - craftsmen, and others apparently abandoned their homes and cities to find better economic opportunities elsewhere in the Maya area."

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