Climate Science and Archaelogy: Fall of Mayan metropolis related to drought

07/19/2022 - The political collapse of Mayapan, the Mayan capital on the Yucatán Peninsula in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD, was likely triggered by a drought that fueled social conflict, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The findings demonstrate climate's influence on societal stability even in ancient times.
Climate Science and Archaelogy: Fall of Mayan metropolis related to drought
The castle or pyramid of Kukulcan is one of the tallest and most remarkable examples of Mayan architecture in the Mayan ruins of Mayapan (photo: Eddie Bugajewski / Unsplash)

 "By combining climate data with historical sources and archaeological finds, we get an astonishingly detailed picture of Maya society 800 years ago in Central America. And this shows that even then, a changing climate influenced human civilization quite significantly," explains Dr. Norbert Marwan, co-author and researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

The ancient Mayan city of Mayapan in Mexico's Yucatán region was marked by population decline, political rivalries and civil wars over an extended period of time. Between 1441 and 1461 AD, the strife reached an unfortunate climax: the complete collapse of institutions and eventual abandonment of the city. All of this occurred during a prolonged drought.

Research shows links between climate change and unrest among ancient Maya

Lead author Douglas Kennett of the University of Santa Barbara and his colleagues examined historical documents for records of violence and excavated human remains from Mayapan for signs of physical injury. The authors then compared these signs to indicators of drought conditions based on climate data going back 1,000 years. These so-called paleoclimate data were analyzed and interpreted by Norbert Marwan of the Potsdam Institute. They revealed that increased rainfall was associated with population growth in Mayapan, while later declines in rainfall were associated with conflict, including within the city's social elite. The authors suggest that the prolonged drought between 1400-1450 CE exacerbated existing intra-societal tensions, destabilized the political order, and eventually led to the abandonment of the city.

Researchers hypothesize that after the collapse of Mayapan, residents migrated to other smaller, better located cities. These adaptations provided resilience at the regional level and resulted in Mayan political and economic structures surviving into the 16th century CE. Thus, the effects of drought on political structures and social order in the Yucatán Peninsula were complex well before our time and can serve as an important example for coping with future climate change.


Kennett, D.J., Masson, M., Lope, C.P. et al. Drought-Induced Civil Conflict Among the Ancient Maya. Nature Communications 13, 3911 (2022). [DOI:10.1038/s41467-022-31522-x]

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