By: Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer
Published: 08/22/2012 09:56 AM EDT on LiveScience
The city states of the ancient Mayan empire flourished in southern Mexico and northern Central America for about six centuries. Then, around A.D. 900 Mayan civilization disintegrated.
Two new studies examine the reasons for the collapse of the Mayan culture, finding the Mayans themselves contributed to the downfall of the empire.
Scientists have found that drought played a key role, but the Mayans appear to have exacerbated the problem by cutting down the jungle canopy to make way for cities and crops, according to researchers who 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," said the study's lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate modeler at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a statement. [Dry and Dying: Images of Drought]
Using climate-model simulations, he and his colleagues examined how much the switch from forest to crops, such as corn, would alter climate. Their results, detailed online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggested that when deforestation was at its maximum, it could account for up to 60 percent of the drying. (The switch from trees to corn reduces the amount of water transferred from the soil to the atmosphere, which reduces rainfall.)
Other recent research takes a more holistic view.
"The ninth-century collapse and abandonment of the Central Maya Lowlands in the Yucatán peninsular region were the result of complex human–environment interactions," writes this team in a study published Monday (Aug 20) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team, led by B.L. Turner, a social scientist at Arizona State University, concurs that by clearing 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.
But this is just one contributing factor to their demise, Turner and colleagues write, pointing out that the reconfiguration of the landscape may also have led to soil degradation. Other archaeological evidence points to a landscape under stress, for instance, the wood of the sapodilla tree, favored as construction beams, 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.
Social and economic dynamics also contributed. Trade routes shifted from land transit across the Yucatán Peninsula to sea-born ships. This change may have weakened the city states, which were contending 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 semidivine 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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"Younger Brother Obsidian," as labeled on the north wall of the Maya city's house by an unknown hand, was painted in the 9th century A.D. Archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University excavates the house in the ruins of the Maya city of Xultún. Younger Brother Obsidian may have been the town scribe. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic
Trees grow atop a newly discovered mound over a house built by the ancient Maya that contains the rendering of an ancient figure, possibly the town scribe. The house sits at the edge of the ancient site of Xultún in Guatemala, a city that once housed tens of thousands of people. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic
Three male figures, seated and painted in black. The men, wearing only white loincloths and medallions around their necks and a head dress bearing another medallion and a single feather, were uncovered on the ruined house's west wall. The painting recreates the design and colors of the original Maya mural. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Painting by Heather Hurst
A Maya king, seated and wearing an elaborate head dress of blue feathers, adorns the north wall of the ruined house discovered at the Maya site of Xultún. An attendant, at right, leans out from behind the king's head dress. The painting by artist Heather Hurst recreates the design and colors of the original Maya artwork at the site. The excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Painting by Heather Hurst
A vibrant orange figure, kneeling in front of the king on the ruined house's north wall, is labeled "Younger Brother Obsidian," a curious title seldom seen in Maya text. The man is holding a writing instrument, which may indicate he was a scribe. The painting recreates the design and colors of the figure in the original Maya mural. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Painting by Heather Hurst
Four long numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Maya calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates may stretch some 7,000 years into the future. These are the first calculations Maya archaeologists have found that seem to tabulate all of these cycles in this way. Although they all involve common multiples of key calendrical and astronomical cycles, the exact significance of these particular spans of time is not known. Illustration by William Saturno and David Stuart © 2012 National Geographic
The painted figure of a man -- possibly a scribe who once lived in the house built by the ancient Maya -- is illuminated through a doorway to the dwelling, in northeastern Guatemala. The structure represents the first Maya house found to contain artwork on its walls. The research is supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic
Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Maya house that dates to the 9th century A.D. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic
Never-before-seen artwork -- the first to be found on walls of a Maya house -- adorn the dwelling in the ruined city of Xultún. The figure at left is one of three men on the house's west wall who are painted in black and wear identical costumes. Excavation and preservation of the site were supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic
Archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University carefully uncovers art and writings left by the Maya some 1,200 years ago. The art and other symbols on the walls may have been records kept by a scribe, Saturno theorizes. Saturno's excavation and documentation of the house were supported by the National Geographic Society. Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic