- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
Despite what much of Russia seems to believe, the ancient Mayans most likely did not believe the world would end next week. But of course, the world as they knew ended more than 1,000 years ago. A paper published in Science last month by Penn State Anthropologist Douglas Kennett and others suspects an earlier period of climate change may have been the reason:
The role of climate change in the development and demise of Classic Maya civilization (300 to 1000 C.E.) remains controversial because of the absence of well-dated climate and archaeological sequences. We present a precisely dated subannual climate record for the past 2000 years from Yok Balum Cave, Belize. From comparison of this record with historical events compiled from well-dated stone monuments, we propose that anomalously high rainfall favored unprecedented population expansion and the proliferation of political centers between 440 and 660 C.E. This was followed by a drying trend between 660 and 1000 C.E. that triggered the balkanization of polities, increased warfare, and the asynchronous disintegration of polities, followed by population collapse in the context of an extended drought between 1020 and 1100 C.E.
Just how bad did things get during this long dry period?
Historical texts on stone monuments were dedicated in at least 39 centers from 750 to 775 C.E., with rulers commissioning monu-ments at several large centers at unprecedentedrates. These texts point to a dynamic and unstable geopolitical landscape centered on status rivalry, war, and strategic alliances (28). A precipitous drop in the number of texts at key centers (such as Tikal) between 775 and 800 C.E. was the precursor to a 50% drop in the number of centers with text-dated monuments between 800 and 825 C.E., which is evidence for widespread failure of these political systems. Increasing interpolity warfare (Fig. 2A) is most evident in the historical record between 780 and 800 C.E. Political power became decentralized as the institution of divine kingship collapsed between 780 and 900 C.E.
Another recent item on Smithsonian Magazine‘s site, suggests that an unusually warm and wet period in the early 1200 facilitated Genghis Khan’s expansion across Eurasia.
We might like to think that our own institutions are a bit less vulnerable to the elements than these civilizations, but then again — the climate we may be in for will likely be much more unusual.