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 More complete Maya collapse update

     No Cataclysm Brought Down Maya
New Research Suggests 200-Year Dry Spell and Drought Had Big Role in
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2003; Page A13

Beginning in the 8th century and continuing for 150 years, the great
Mayan civilization of the Petn rain forest in present-day Guatemala
fell apart. Cities were abandoned, people fled and wars raged across the
encroaching wilderness.
This prolonged event -- known traditionally as the Maya "collapse" -- is
one of the enduring mysteries of pre-Columbian America and a subject of
continued debate. How did it happen?
In research reported yesterday, a German-led team of earth scientists
offered new evidence that a 200-year dry spell, punctuated by three
periods of serious drought, may have played an important role.
"There's competition for food, there are wars, there's deforestation,
and the climate is drier," said paleo-oceanographer Gerald Haug of
Potsdam's Geoscience Center. "These were problems you could cope with to
a certain degree -- but then you had the extremes. It's a subtle
By measuring the undisturbed sediments of Venezuela's Cariaco Basin on
the Caribbean coast, Haug's team was able to identify a significant
decline in regional rainfall beginning around A.D. 750, with drought
spikes starting at 810, 860 and 910.
The sequence corresponds fairly closely to protracted Maya upheavals
that began in the western Petn in the late 7th century, and in the
central Petn lowlands in the 9th century. By A.D. 930, some
archaeologists calculate that the Maya heartland had lost 95 percent of
its population.
For more than a century, this diaspora bewildered archaeologists even as
it cemented the popular vision of a "lost civilization" of spectacular
pyramids and monuments overtaken by jungle in a trackless tropical
Much more is known today, and archaeologists are much less likely to
accept overarching theories for the "collapse," a term that is losing
cachet as evidence accumulates that the Maya did not "disappear," but
simply moved: north to Yucatan in Mexico, eastward to Belize and to
highland settlements on the edges of the rain forest.
"It's not a question of whether there was a drought or an invasion.
There wasn't some big, single anything that happened at some big, single
time," said Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur A. Demarest, who
is editing a book on the period. "This kind of theory doesn't have a
place anymore, given the detail of cultural history we have."
More sympathetic was the University of Pennsylvania's Robert J. Sharer,
author of a classic text on the Maya, who noted that "climate changes,
including drought, have always been part of the mix," and "the argument
has been strengthened" over the last 10 years. "But what everybody wants
is a pat answer," Sharer continued, "and we're still not at that point,
and probably never will be."
The new research, reported yesterday in the journal Science, was
sponsored by the Ocean Drilling Program, a multinational initiative led
by the National Science Foundation. Haug's team studied the topmost
layers of a 170-meter Cariaco Basin core sample.
The basin in Venezuela is about 1,800 miles east of the Petn, but
both places lie on the "Intertropical Convergence Zone," also known as
the doldrums, a band that encircles the Earth where the northern and
southern trade winds meet to create a region of almost perpetual
thunderstorms. When it rains in the basin, it is raining in the Petn.
"The Cariaco Basin is the best climatological archive in the tropics,
and since the
Maya region is clearly affected by the same climate, it was perfect for
us," Haug said.
Just as important, the deeper waters of the Cariaco Basin have been
oxygen-free for 14,600 years, since rising sea levels breached natural
barriers and filled what had been a lake, displacing fresh water, which
subsequently returned to cover the surface like a suffocating blanket.
The sterile environment allows sediment to fall unimpeded to the bottom
of the basin, where it rests undisturbed.
During the rainy season, runoff from the surrounding area deposits dark
sediments on the basin bottom. When the convergence zone migrates, the
dry season sets in, and the sediments are lighter, composed principally
of plankton from the basin's oxygenated top layer.
Each year has a dark and a light layer, and Haug's team found that the
dark layers beginning around A.D. 750 became thinner, and then became
much thinner during the three spiking periods of three to 10 years each.
"No one archaeological model is likely to capture completely a
phenomenon as complex as the Maya decline," the authors wrote in
Science. "Nevertheless, the Cariaco Basin sediment record provides
support for the hypothesis that regional drought played an important
Demarest said, however, that the western Petn was receiving 100
inches of rainfall per year during the latter half of the 8th century,
when warfare ravaged the region and destroyed the culture. "It's a very
varied picture," Demarest said, and no single theory fits everywhere.
Besides drought and war, scholars over the years have placed varying
degrees of blame for the Maya decline on pestilence, overpopulation,
environmental degradation and class warfare, with varying degrees of
"But that kind of theory doesn't work anymore, because we have too many
details," Demarest said. "The only approach that works is to look at it
in detail, region by region, and hook up the cultural histories, and we
are just doing that now. These changes in the Maya took a long time --
like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire."

? 2003 The Washington Post Company
Related Links

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Sat, 03 Sep 2005 12:40:51 GMT
 More complete Maya collapse update
I refuse to work with German archaeologists since they stole the
Cho-ko-tien(Zhoukoudien I think) fossils.

  Look there goes another Iceman ker plop

Thu, 03 Nov 2005 20:45:35 GMT
 [ 2 post ] 

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