Academic Minute Podcast

Marilyn Masson, University at Albany – Collapse of Ancient Mayan Capital Linked to Drought

On University at Albany Week: How did ancient civilizations handle extensive droughts?

Marilyn Masson, professor of anthropology, says finding out could be key for the future in a warming world.

Dr. Marilyn Masson is a historical anthropologist and archaeologist whose current research projects focus on the archaeology of Colonial encounters in Yucatan, Mexico, and Albany, New York. Her research generally focuses on the archaeology of the majority, particularly the study of daily life, social diversity, and household economies of ordinary people in urban as well as rural settings. In Mexico, she collaborates with an international team of researchers and local assistants. They have worked in and around the late Pre-Columbian (Postclassic) capital city of Mayapan since 2001 and have recently expanded to regional investigations of changing settlement and demographic patterns through time that attest to cycles of climatic crisis, resilience, and societal reconstitution. This team has also begun research in the Colonial period at two remote, rural Maya mission towns of sixteenth-century date.

Collapse of Ancient Mayan Capital Linked to Drought

As humans grapple with a future of increased uncertainty due to climate change, it’s worth looking back to see how ancient civilizations handled such challenges.

The city of Mayapan is one such case, the last regional political capital of northern Maya civilization. It collapsed violently around 1448, following a battle and massacre of ruling elites, only 60 or so years before Spanish contact.

Our international team of archaeology and paleoclimatology researchers now recognizes that the city’s history of violence started a century earlier in the context of a prolonged drought on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

We analyzed ancient lake core geochemistry and stalagmite stable oxygen isotope records to reconstruct annual rainfall data revealing dire droughts in the region after 1340. These droughts were coeval with the timing of population loss and three mass graves at the city. Each mass grave reveals evidence of brutal and hasty massacres near public buildings at Mayapan.

The 14th century droughts would have impaired food production, causing famine, and setting the stage for unrest. These hardships were used opportunistically by a rival governing faction to foment discontent and rebellion against city leaders.

As for elsewhere in world history, this case illustrates how hardship can become politicized in the worst kind of way, sowing division and inciting aggression.

Read More:
[Nature] – Drought-Induced Civil Conflict Among the Ancient Maya


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