Geography in the News: Demise of the Maya

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University


A recent article in the journal Science sheds new light on the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization. Scientists have argued for decades over what caused the Maya culture to disappear. The new study points to large-scale climate change as a culprit.

The Maya civilization was an ancient Native American culture that inhabited the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. Today, the region encompassing the Maya homeland is eastern and southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and western Honduras, an area of about 150,000 square miles (388,498 sq. km). Researchers tend to split the Maya into two geographical groups, Lowland Maya and Highland Maya.

The Maya civilization was a group of independent city-states that shared some culture, including rituals, ceremonies, architecture and objects. The city-states, each of which was ruled by a king, both traded and occasionally warred with one another.

Throughout their existence, the Maya advanced their civilization in many different ways. The earliest Maya were mostly farmers, living in small villages of thatch houses. They developed intensive farming techniques, including crop rotation, fertilizer and terracing.

Between 300 and 900 A.D., Maya civilization became more complex, with populations increasing in both the lowland and highland areas.

The Lowland Maya centers flourished, becoming true cities with large populations, great pyramids, temples, sculpture and palaces constructed from stone and masonry. They excelled in mathematics and astronomy and built aqueducts to bring water to their cities.

Located in the tropical rainforests and low woodlands, the Lowland Maya utilized slash and burn agriculture techniques. Most of their crops were for their own consumption and included maize, squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc (yucca), cacao, cotton and sisal, used to make rope.

The Highland Maya, found in drier volcanic highlands, were farmers as well, but also traded in minerals and metals found on their lands. These included obsidian, jade and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite.

From about 790 to 890 A.D., Lowland Maya civilization began to collapse. Populations declined, leaving the awe-inspiring temples and pyramids to decay. Eventually, the great Maya cities were abandoned altogether. Scholars have postulated many reasons for the collapse including warfare, disease, social unrest and over-farming.

Now, a new study supports the theory that large-scale climate change led to the Maya civilization’s demise. Scientists used a 13,500-year-old stalagmite from a recently discovered cave in Belize to assemble a rainfall record for the Maya homelands that traces the past 2,000 years.

As rainwater dripped onto the floor of the cave, its minerals slowly formed the ancient stalagmite. Scientists examined the ratio of atomic isotopes along the length of the spire to determine when portions formed and how much rain fell during each six-month period. They were then able to draw conclusions about moisture levels that affected the Maya.

They discovered that the early period of the Maya civilization experienced abundant rainfall supporting increased food production and a population explosion beginning around 440 A.D. By 700 A.D., however, the Maya began to suffer a drying trend that lasted four centuries. During that period, the Maya endured a series of major droughts, said Douglas Kennett, anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University and the leader of the study. The droughts likely brought crop failure, famine and starvation to the Maya. Kennett further postulated that the drought contributed to societal fragmentation and political collapse, whereby the Mayan kings lost their power.

Other scientists believe that while climate change may have affected the Maya, it did not lead to the end of the civilization, but set the stage for decline. While the evidence remains strong, the debate continues about the demise of one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere—the ancient Maya civilization.

And that is Geography in the News.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: ;;; and

Since 1999, Geography in the News has been a must-read for teachers subscribing to the K-12 online resource Maps101. This one and more than 700 of the 1200 GITN articles are available in full, with supporting materials, critical thinking questions and Spanish language translations, to Maps101 subscribers.



Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..