People are often curious when they find out that ancient civilizations disappeared. What caused these people to vanish? Is there anything we can learn from what happened to them? Is what destroyed them a problem that’s still around?
To answer these (and other) questions, scientists have long studied the collapse of the ancient Mayan Civilization, a group of people who inhabited what is now Central America from roughly 250 AD to 900 AD. Though perhaps best-known for their monolithic temples and extensive study of astronomy, the Mayan people are also thought to have been one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas before colonization from Europe. However, with little warning, the population of the Maya was reduced over a period of about two centuries, and the jungle took over most of the cities.
New research, however, suggests that drought in the region may have had a significant impact on the decline of the Maya. Throughout history, many civilizations have started near sources of water, as a steady supply is essential to allow a population to grow. The Yucatan lowlands (which held a significant part of the Mayan civilization) have no rivers running through them, but a relatively high rate of evaporation. Thus, water supplies are largely replenished by rainfall during the summer, and the Maya took creative advantage of this in order to maximize their potential.
Some scientists, however, believe that they may have stretched out a little too far by trying to take advantage of what they had. The Earth’s climate is highly dynamic and changes over time, and evidence from stalagmites and lakes suggests that the Maya were unable to continue on at the capacity they created when a prolonged drought hit the region. Mild and moderate droughts can be endured for a time, but prolonged droughts have a tendency to cause significant unrest and an abandonment of cities and other major population centers. Thus, rather than a rapid vanishing from disease, it may be that a Mayan exodus of sorts led to other areas in the Americas being populated, until the droughts eased up and other civilizations moved in and began to construct their own societies in the land once ruled by the Maya.
In modern times, we still have much to learn from the collapse of this fascinating civilization. Science suggests that the Maya were unable to deal with climate changes, but with modern technology, we have more capability to deal with natural disasters, droughts, famine, and other problems that have historically plagued humanity. By studying what happened to them, and working to avert it in the future, we can use the lessons of the past and create a brighter future for all of mankind.