Maya Collapse-NASA research 
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 Maya Collapse-NASA research

Mayan Mystery Solution May Be Ecological Warning

Jun. 26--WASHINGTON--Images from space are providing scientists with new
clues about the mysterious collapse of the Mayan civilization of Central
America and some hints about the fates of other ancient civilizations
that tried, and failed, to manipulate their environments with massive
public works projects.
Analyses of satellite images by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and
others suggest that, at least in the Peten region of northern Guatemala,
the Maya made major ecological mistakes. Those, in turn, led to the
collapse of what, around 800 A.D., was one of the most densely populated
regions of the New World.
"By about 900 A.D., these people had all but disappeared, and we think
we're beginning to understand why," NASA archaeologist Tom Sever told
the World Archaeological Congress in Washington.
Aerial surveys of the region were performed by Charles Lindbergh more
than 70 years ago, but new space-based sensors are enabling scientists
to see through the dense jungle growth. "We have been able to see things
that have never been mapped before," Sever said. "Some of these features
are so subtle that even if you chopped away all the vegetation, you
couldn't see them."
From hundreds of newly discovered cities and towns, fields, roadways,
canals and man-made reservoirs, researchers are beginning to see the
rise and fall of Mayan civilization in a new light --- one that strikes
a familiar chord in a modern world that worries about water wars,
drought and overpopulation.
The Mayan civilization originated in the Yucatan and eventually occupied
much of what today is southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El
Salvador and northern Belize.
The Maya initially prospered because the region was dotted with small
lakes and ponds. As the population grew, however, the Maya rapidly
deforested steep slopes to make way for crops. The resulting erosion
clogged streams and rivers with silt and turned the lakes into seasonal
To supply the water that once had been stored naturally, the Maya built
hundreds of man-made reservoirs. For a while, engineering seemed to be
the answer.
But with a population density equivalent to that of China and every
arable acre under cultivation, there was no cushion for bad years. "We
calculated that even if all the reservoirs were full, they could only
hold enough water to sustain that many people for 18 months," Sever
Sometime between 800 and 900 A.D., a series of severe droughts
devastated the region. The reservoirs dried up and the crops failed.
"Within 100 years, 95 percent of the population was gone," Sever said.
The analysis isn't as advanced, but researchers say space-based and
aerial images are beginning to suggest that a similar fate may have
befallen the Khmer empire, which ruled much of Cambodia between the
ninth and 15th centuries.
Rediscovered by French missionaries in the mid-1800s, the Angkor
region's archaeological sites have been celebrated primarily for their
lavishly decorated temples and stone sculptures.
In recent years, however, archaeologists have mapped an extensive
network of roads, canals and reservoirs.
The latest radar images by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory show
networks of canals and square-cornered reservoirs --- many too faint to
be seen from the ground --- that cover more than 300 square miles.
Archaeologists now estimate that the population of Angkor may have
reached 1 million at its peak.
They don't yet know why it collapsed, but an eco-disaster like that
which befell the Maya is one of the leading possibilities.
To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, or to subscribe to the
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Copyright ? 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Distributed by
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

Copyright ? 2001, Hoover's, Inc.

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